On the run from the US cavalry, civil war veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is transported via an interstellar portal onto Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. Martian gravity endows Carter with superhuman strength and the ability to leap incredible heights in a single bound. His feats greatly impress Tars Tharkas (Willem Dafoe), leader of the Tharks - a race of twelve foot tall, green skinned creatures with four arms who find themselves caught in the midst of a war waged between rival factions of a more advanced humanoid race. Soon afterwards, Carter meets Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), a courageous and beautiful martian princess who is in desperate need of a hero.
Based on the century-old science fiction fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, John Carter sadly failed to connect with a mass audience, mostly due to Disney’s misconceived, borderline self-destructive ad campaign, while its hostile reception in some quarters led to the “death to the blockbuster” debate that grossly overshadowed its genuine merits and admitted flaws as a movie. The great movie myth of our times is the alleged absence of character-driven, thought-provoking, intimate, small-scale films (ever notice how critics only bring this up when actually faced with one?) those who perpetuate this notion held John Carter as a two-hundred million plus example of everything wrong with modern cinema. Wise up, people. Blockbusters are the lifeblood of the industry. Without them there would be no money for any kind of movies. Instead of simply resenting their existence, a cinephile’s energy would be better spent clamouring for decent ones. Is it better studios took a chance on a flawed yet heartfelt personal project like John Carter or poured those millions into another lazily cynical Transformers sequel? Okay, end of rant.
John Carter carries the kind of charm and romance too often absent from contemporary science fiction, even though Burroughs' pioneering ideas have been lifted so many times by the likes of Star Wars, the Superman comics, Dune, and especially Avatar (2009) that this adaptation has the unusual handicap of seeming offbeat and familiar at the same time. Throughout its fifty year development, the film was at various times mooted as an animated film in the Thirties by Warner Brothers animator Robert Clampett, live action versions developed by Robert Rodriguez and AintItCool movie geek Harry Knowles, and did reach the screen as the less-than-faithful Princess of Mars (2009) starring Antonio Sabata Jr. and former porn star Traci Lords, before Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton seized his chance to bring a childhood favourite to the big screen.
The film’s chief flaw is an unwieldy story structure, a mash of flashbacks and flash-forwards including an unnecessary prologue and framing device involving the young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara, of Spy Kids (2000)), that proves perplexing given Stanton has proven himself a past master in this area - with Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL-E (2008) - and has acclaimed novelist Michael Chabon on board as co-scriptwriter. Stanton throws us right into the middle of an effects laden sky battle, tossing arcane terms and backstory around with geeky enthusiasm, instantly losing those mainstream viewers he presumably wants to convert to the joys of Burroughs vision.
While the action occasionally loses momentum, the characters are well developed and engaging, the film has solid SF ideas, an intriguing alien culture and spectacle in abundance. Much like Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace (1999), the plot deals with co-dependant cultures learning to value and understand one another in the face of shadowy power brokers engineering wars between different species. John Carter himself has an intriguing character arc, disillusioned with fighting for lost causes his past leaves him reluctant to take on the mantle of a hero. The film carries an eloquent yet understated message of co-operation and understanding whilst Stanton's light touch ensures the CGI heavy set-pieces remain brisk and lively with just the right amount of humour without puncturing his carefully crafted fantasy. Stanton has cast his pet project exceptionally well. Strong actors like Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Hayden Church imbue his digital menagerie with warmth and personality whilst a roster of top British thesps lend grativas to the space opera intrigue. In particular, James Purefoy, a stalwart of such swashbuckling fare, brings some endearingly wry humour to a minor role.
Taylor Kitsch gets off to a shaky start, struggling to engage as the kind of surly hero he has latterly made his stock in trade via Battleship (2012) and the forthcoming Savages (2012). Yet he gamely chips away at John Carter's granite facade and develops Carter into an engagingly flawed hero. Also the film has arguably the greatest space princess in recent years. A fetchingly feisty Lynn Collins rises to the challenge of a multifaceted role, equal parts wide-eyed science genius, tough warrior-princess and sultry space bikini babe. It is a star turn. Refreshingly free of irony and neurotic subtext, John Carter revels in the innocent joy of old-fashioned pulp romance imbued with a pleasingly progressive attitude. Its reputation may well grow over time.