John Carter is one of those films that you really, really want to like more than you actually do. For me, it should have been a slam dunk. It ticks so many of my boxes: Retro-flavoured sci-fi? Check. Classic pulp literature source? Check. Beautiful alien vistas? Check. Supporting cast made up of reliable British stalwarts? Check. So why doesn’t the film click in the way that it should?
The blame must lie squarely with the director. Andrew Stanton has three outstanding directorial credits to his name, and they are all Pixar animations: A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and WALL·E. As good as they are (and they are very very good), it is still an enormous leap from animation to live-action – doubly so when you’re working on a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Funnily enough, one of Stanton’s colleagues made exactly the same leap last December: Brad Bird (the genius behind Ratatouille, The Incredibles and the joyous The Iron Giant) branched out with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and delivered the most entertaining entry in the franchise yet. So evidently it is possible to make the transition.
But Stanton fumbles the narrative right from the off. Instead of easing the audience in to a world full of strange names and warring factions, we are dropped practically head first in to a mid-air battle. It’s pretty difficult to get a handle on who’s who and why they are fighting, and it makes very little sense. Then we’re suddenly catapulted to 1880s New York, where a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) has been summoned by his wealthy and eccentric uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) – it’s there he learns of Carter’s Martian escapades, and how he came to travel to the red planet in the first place.
I can see why Stanton wanted to cut through mountains of exposition in order to tease the action, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s jarring and disorientating, and feels like a desperate ploy. From New York it’s back to Mars and those strange names and factions, although the scenes where Carter adjusts to a world where he is able to leap tall buildings are quite fun.
I don’t buy the argument going round critical circles that the source material has been plundered and ripped off so many times down the years that there’s nothing left of interest to today’s audiences. True, the original Burroughs stories date back to 1912, and have heavily influenced genre milestones like Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Avatar. Certain plot points and scenes heavily recall films like Stargate and last year’s Cowboys and Aliens. But with the right script, cast and direction, anything is possible. There is plenty of potential on display in John Carter to justify the decision to adapt the stories. The problem is the way they’ve been adapted.
The story has been pared down to a basic series of chases, from A to B to C, occasionally pausing for some action. There’s very little time spent on shading the characters, which obviously creates problems when you’re not sure who’s on who’s side and does nothing to win the audience over. Some humour would have helped, but there’s none to be found. The central romance between Carter and Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) feels a bit forced. A cute dog-type creature goes a little way to adding family appeal, but not much. In short, it falls in to the common blockbuster trap of all spectacle, no heart.
The second big problem is the casting of the lead character. For Carter they needed someone who had charisma, panache, a bit of swagger. They needed a Harrison Ford; they got a Mark Hamill. No offence to Kitsch, I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke, but he’s a plank of wood as Carter. He looks the part but fails to convince as a man able to inspire an uprising; he barely seems credible as a disillusioned Confederate soldier.
The film is not a complete loss; far from it. The entire production is a thing of beauty – the photography, sets, costumes and special effects all look terrific. Beyond Kitsch, the rest of the cast more than hold their own. It’s always fun to see a good supporting cast in a sci-fi yarn like this; they give depth to the spectacle and help anchor the story, and actors like Mark Strong and James Purefoy do just that (though Dominic West simply stays in Ham mode). And the copious action on display is fun, if never thrilling.
John Carter is no flop. It’s not as good as it might have been and it has problems, but it’s still an entertaining two hours. It’s just a shame that, with so much going for it, it only emerges as OK.