John Carter Review
Adapting literature for the big screen is always a tricky proposition, almost more so for fantasy novels. Do it right and you get a Lord Of The Rings; do it wrong and you get The Golden Compass. Andrew Stanton’s live-action directorial debut John Carter, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series, falls somewhere in the middle. Neither truly dreadful nor wholly brilliant, it’s an altogether average family sci-fi adventure enlivened by defiant moments of brilliance that occur too sparsely over its overlong running time to fully save it.
Based on the first novel in Burroughs’ Barsoom series, A Princess Of Mars, John Carter follows its eponymous hero (Taylor Kitsch) – a Civil War vet – as he’s transported from an Arizona cave to the dying planet of Barsoom, ravaged by conflicts between its various races, including the Zodangans and the Heliumites, and ends up being the one last hope of Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) and the planet itself. And in that, you might already deduce one of John Carter’s main faults: for the uninitiated, it’s pretty unforgiving story-wise, plunging the viewer head-first into a completely new society with a fast-paced plot that leaves even the briefest of toilet breaks a potentially derailing moment as you try to catch up. Amazingly though, even with the constantly moving plot, it manages the trick of being completely dull at points, leaving you waiting for the next time Carter meets a new race or gets his sword out.
It’s no real fault of the acting talent with Kitsch firmly establishing his leading man credentials, Collins delightfully fierce as the Princess who can hold her own and while Mark Strong can sleepwalk his way through a nefarious villain role nowadays, he’s still great at it. The real problem lies in that it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before and while the novels date back to 1917, meaning that the most comparable films – Avatar for one – have actually copied from Burroughs' work, this will barely be a minor thought in the casual viewer’s mind. It’s a relief when the film turns to its action beats as it’s here where you get a real sense of a good, old-fashioned romp with a mid-film battle between Carter and a whole army a particular stylish highlight, wonderfully juxtaposed with a key moment in Carter’s history. But these adrenaline boosts are few and far between; criminally even the climactic battle that is nicely built up, is practically over almost before it’s even begun.
Simply put, it’s hard to see how John Carter will appeal to its main market as it’s far too convoluted to keep the attention of children and doesn’t put enough shiny, loud action in front of them to distract them from the plot, although it does have a great sidekick in the form of the CG Calot – a large, lizard-like dog – Woola who completely steals the film. It will appeal to fans of the novels as it’s largely faithful to at least the tone of the books, if not completely plot-wise, and adults can at least appreciate the effort put into creating a stunning world thanks to excellent production design from Nathan Crowley, captured in its full beauty by cinematographer Dan Mindel. However as an overall film it never fully convinces and you can imagine it working better as a TV series where the mythologies didn’t have to be chucked at the screen in quick succession. John Carter is far from terrible, but it’s unlikely to last that long in the memory either.