Sunday, 18 March 2012

Review: John Carter

Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West

Written by: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, Edgar Rice Burroughs (story)

John Carter is really rather good at jumping. He enjoys it too. So much so, a huge proportion of this 132-minute action spectacular is devoted to John Carter jumping.

John Carter, you see, is an American civil war veteran miraculously transported to Mars which, for the purposes of this film, is inhabited by warring humanoid tribes and 12-foot tall aliens. Carter (Taylor Kitsch), thanks to the shift in gravity, is blessed with a powerful punch and a bounding leap which could be the key to ending war on the dying planet and restoring it to its once lush glory.

Mar is at threat from the maniacal Sab Than (West) who is bestowed with a powerful weapon by the mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong). He can destroy battleships in a single movement but is willing to spare the kingdom of Helium in exchange for princess Dejah Thoris' (Collins) hand in marriage. Thoris, naturally enough, isn't best pleased with this deal and turns to Carter for salvation.

On paper, this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series has potential. Fans have been waiting for many years to see the series adapted to the big screen, and with good reason. Carter made his first appearance 100 years ago and has appeared in novels and comics ever since. Technology has taken some time to catch up, but finally Burroughs' rich world can be recreated.

Disney put its considerable financial might behind establishing a new franchise based on some much-loved sci-fi material. It even recruited the technical wizardry of Pixar and Finding Nemo director Stanton to provide an incredible visual sheen.

John Carter is a gorgeous film, there's no denying it. The neutral thark aliens, who Carter first encounters, are impressively rendered using cutting-edge 3D effects and there are plenty of scenes which took great skill to produce.

For all their technical might however, very few set-pieces will leave you particularly thrilled. Many are overblown, confusing and repetitive while some are far too brief. Carter's new-found jumping ability makes for some amusing slapstick at first, but soon becomes a source of irritation.

As with so many other tentpole films, the plot, despite its wealth of source material, is an afterthought. Stilted dialogue and an unbelievable romantic motive ensures progress from action sequence to action sequence, but does little else. Things are not helped by some uncharismatic performances from lead Kitsch and love interest Lynn Collins.

It seems a shame for the dialogue in this film to be so poor, but it may have been inevitable considering the amount of time the film has to devote to establishing Burroughs' Mars and introducing a wealth of eclectic characters. Still, with Stanton's talent for empathy and a writing credit for critically acclaimed author Michael Chabon, much more could have been done.

Paradoxically, the tharks are the most human of the characters in this film. Voiced by talented individuals including Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton, their society is troubled by leadership issues, family conflicts and matters of honour. In fact, the thark community seems much more interesting than the war going on around them.

The story is probably the least of Disney's concerns, however. John Carter will make its money on the quality of the effects and the world it creates. There is certainly some silly fun to be had - the creatures are weird and wonderful and Dominic West's dastardly villain give this a pulpy Flash Gordon-esque feel.

It is possible to enjoy John Carter, even if you're not much of a fan of jumping. Just try not to think too hard about what is going on.


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