Published Mar 08, 2012As good as celebrated Pixar director Andrew Stanton's live action debut is, John Carter's impact will inevitably be diluted by the public awareness of the sci-fi mega-blockbusters that have borrowed liberally from its 100-year-old story, written by pulp icon Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Avatar and Star Wars are the most obvious culprits, and Stanton returns the favour by employing the grandiose directorial eye and keen populist sensibilities of Cameron and Lucas to the adventures of an American Civil War vet caught up in another interspecies conflict after being mysteriously marooned on Mars.
A screenwriting team featuring Stanton, Mark Andrews and author-extraordinaire Michael Chabon (Wonderboys) has smartly adapted Burroughs's clunky original text, dialling back, but not entirely omitting, the racist attitudes of the time, excising the laughable arrogant bravado of Carter's internal monologue while reworking the fantastical logic into something more sensible. As well as expanding explanations and character motivations by lifting appropriate elements from the novel series as a whole to create a more cohesive introduction to the concepts this world revolves around.
I'm not sure an introductory battle, explicitly stating and depicting the history of conflict between the civilization-building species of Mars, is the best way into the story ― having knowledge of what John Carter is getting into before he does removes the sense of wonder inherent in discovering an alien world along with him.
The impulse to hook audiences with action is understandable though, and the sequence is dynamic, ramping up the energy before introducing the title character, played with gruff charm by Taylor Kitsch (Fright Night Lights), on Earth. After getting caught in a conflict between a native tribe and American soldiers trying to force him back into service (the theme of the unwilling soldier is a little heavy-handed), Carter takes refuge in a mysterious cave, where he's mistakenly zapped to Mars. It's a pleasure to watch Carter adapt to moving in a lower-gravity environment, even if he goes from relearning to walk to leaping between airships mid-combat a little too quickly to retain plausibility.
But such issues are minor concerns when watching a wholly entertaining, high-calibre space opera that enthusiastically embraces the playful ridiculousness of its fantasy conceits. That same sense of whimsy makes Lynn Collins's knowingly stagy take on scantily clad warrior babe/scientist/princess and predictable love interest Dejah Thoris tonally suitable where it could have come across as grating. A top-notch score by Michael Giaccone doesn't quite reach the iconic heights of a classic John Williams theme, and neither of the primary villains, played by Dominic West (The Wire) and Mark Strong, have the gravitas or sinister charm to have the impact of Darth Vader or even Colonel Quaritch.
As a whole, however, John Carter is superior to Avatar, being less emotionally manipulative, less broadly derivative and, ultimately, putting a sense of fun ahead of preachy self-seriousness. This is tent pole filmmaking at its finest and is sure to be a formative experience for a whole generation of young viewers and a wildly entertaining ride for seasoned appreciators of epic cinematic spectacle. (Buena Vista)