Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars has been cited as a major influence on some of the biggest sci-fi films of all time, like Avatar and Star Wars. Here it gets its own big screen Disney treatment from Wall-E director Andrew Stanton. Can he follow in the footsteps of fellow PIXAR alumnus, Brad “Mission: Impossible 4” Bird, in successfully orchestrating a live-action blockbuster?
With ageless shamans, ferocious white apes, and an intergalactic army to tackle, the biggest hurdle facing John Carter is that the film must find its own identity when its imprint is so evident in most of the genre’s DNA.
While fleeing a gang of gunslingers, civil war veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is transported to a mysterious red planet inhabited by giant green barbarians. After evading their capture he becomes embroiled in a political tug-of-war between conflicted races, at the centre of which is a beautiful princess (Lynn Collins), whose fate comes to rest in our reluctant hero’s hands.
There is no avoiding the similarities with a whole spectrum of “stranger in another land” narratives. Evident in John Carter‘s make-up are last year’s sci-fi misfire, Cowboys & Aliens, and most of George Lucas’s soulless Star Wars prequels.
But put that to one side, accept the jargon that’s afforded very little explanation, and it is possible to enjoy a visually stunning space opus. Yes it’s flawed, but undeniably entertaining in a way Lucas forgot about a long, long time ago. Director Stanton avoids any issues of style over content by allowing his main players some time among the spectacle. Remember that this is the man who made us fall in love with a rust bucket robot, so characters are important to him.
Kitsch, so impressive in Sky Atlantic’s Friday Night Lights, is typically stoic and heroic as the interplanetary warrior. A few more wisecracks might have benefitted him, and Carter does appear to accept his situation a little too quickly, but Kitsch does enough for us to warm to him. His scenes with the unbelievably attractive Lynn Collins are effectively cute and engaging, but sadly the romance is a little rushed.
The film’s major issue is pacing. Individual sequences work fine, but balancing them with multiple plot strands and a compendium of new names, species, and planets, gives the story very little time to breathe, even at over two hours in length. While this means things never become boring, it also shows a lack of faith in the material, especially with the excellent but unnecessarily rushed epilogue. Don’t Disney think they have an accessible franchise on their hands so they can spread the story over a series of films?
Anyone confused with the sci-fi talk will be blown away by the seamlessly constructed action sequences. Stanton never allows them to become bloated and repetitive, and most impressively the special effects carry some real weight. You actually believe that Kitsch is swinging a huge white beast around his head.
John Carter is clearly a passion project for Stanton, and one which has been admirably executed. Here’s hoping that it can find an audience so that further missions to Mars can be launched as soon as possible.