I’m fresh back from a trip to see John Carter, the big new Disney movie directed by Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame and adapted from the classic 1917 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars. Describe it like that, and you begin to get a sense of just how much baggage this movie’s carrying around. Does it manage to support all that weight under the crushing gravity of planet Earth? Let’s find out.
On the positive side, the screenplay does a good job of staying faithful to both the original story and, more importantly, its spirit. The film possesses an innocent charm, and makes no apology for the fact that the Mars we’re on has breathable air and a thriving fauna in the form of multi-limbed tharks and giant white apes – not to mention the suspiciously human inhabitants of the city of Helium. There’s some clever sleight-of-hand that explains just how our hero John Carter gets to Mars in the first place (something Burroughs was never that bothered about) and some neat folding-in of stuff from the later Barsoom novels. All in all, a careful and respectful piece of work.
And that’s the problem. The original novel is a plot-driven pulp adventure that moves its protagonists across the surface of Mars/Barsoom more or less at the whim of the author. John Carter falls in love with the beautiful Dejah Thoris simply because that’s what happens when you plant a fit hero in front of a gorgeous heroine. The battles happen because it’s time for an action scene. Sadly, if you want to put together an engaging movie for the 21st century, that’s just not enough.
Another problem is the cast. Taylor Kitsch is very good as Carter, but I’m unconvinced by Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris and there’s a woeful lack of chemistry between the two. There’s some good voice talent in evidence with the thark characters (notably William Defoe and Samantha Morton) but the human faces – with the exception of the always reliable Mark Strong as Matai Shang – are entirely forgettable. A decent ensemble of solid character actors would have made a world of difference.
It’s not all bad. The set-piece action scenes are, as you’d expect, carefully constructed. A highlight is the scene where Carter battles an entire army of wild tharks while experiencing flashbacks of the tragedy he experienced years before back on Earth – one of the few moments of real emotion in the movie. The design of the characters and flying vehicles is beautiful, although the planet itself is disappointing. Yes, the story tells us Mars is a dying planet, but does it have to look quite so sterile?
The visual effects are, it has to be said, stunning. The human and alien characters move through a common space with casual ease. There’s an issue here, however, that I first remarked on to friends when I first saw Dragonheart. There are great benefits in being able to keep visual effects natural, using hand-held cameras and imperfect framing to help keep things real. But when it comes to big fantasy films like this, we in the audience want to go ‘wow’ from time to time. And that mean sometimes you have to get stylised and formal. Dragonheart placed Draco convincingly into real landscapes, but it was short on those formalised iconic shots that send a shiver down your spine. John Carter is the same.
I’ll close on a positive note. There’s a creature from the original novel called Woola. Woola’s a kind of goofy Martian dog-thing that befriends Carter and ends up accompanying him on his adventures. Woola is thus perfectly positioned to become that most irritating of movie character: the cute comic-relief buffoon. Fortunately, Stanton and his team have pitched Woola just right, making him, well, cute and goofy. As soon as they start importing those things from Mars, I’m-a-gonna get me one.