Thursday, 1 March 2012
FILM REVIEW: JOHN CARTER
Walt Disney Studios Films
The phenomonal success of James Cameron's Avatar (2009) must have been viewed as a double-edged sword by Disney Studios for their own in-the-works 'Earth man-involved-in-alien-civil-war' film, John Carter.
Once the property of Paramount, the project -- an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, the first in a series of pulpy Western/sci-fi/fantasy adventures published in 1917 -- had been an on-again, off-again affair since the mid '00s with a succession of directors attached and then unattached before the rights fell to Disney and they settled on Pixar alum, Andrew Stanton (of Wall-E and Finding Nemo fame).
If the similarities in story with Cameron's film were a concern for the House of Mouse, Avatar's all-conquering performance at the international box office must have been enough to ease their doubts. It is also probably the only reason that John Carter arrives in cinemas in unnecessary 3D, for the film itself -- a space opera set predominantly on Mars -- gains nothing from the extra dimension (other than $$$).
While prospecting for gold, former Confederate soldier, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), stumbles upon a gateway which teleports him to Mars, or Barsoom as it is known to its many various inhabitants, the first of which Carter encounters being the Tharks: four-armed, 12-foot tall noble savages which were no doubt inspired by Burroughs' own observations of native Americans.
The Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), take in the strange looking but impressively gifted Carter (Mars' lighter gravity allows the former soldier to leap tall buildings in a single bound - if there were buildings), amusingly calling him 'Virginia' after confusing his home for his name.
But Carter is treated as little more than a pet until enemy forces, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), under the influence of the supernaturally-powered Matai Shang (Mark Strong, who really should fire his agent), attack the Tharks. Carter comes to the Tharks' rescue, and that of Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
Dejah just happens to be Princess of the Mars city of Helium, and promised to Sab in matrimony by her father (Ciaran Hinds). But the strong-willed Princess has other plans, escaping Sab's clutches during the skirmish and finding in the pale (Dejah's kind are more or less human save for their red spray tans) yet impressive Carter a possible champion for her people.
Cue Dances With Martians, as Carter and Dejah, in the process of uncovering the mysteries which brought the Virginian to Mars, prepare to bring about the downfall of evil on Barsoom by rallying the natives, and predictably falling in love along the way.
And while I didn't fall for in love with John Carter, I'll readily admit I enjoyed it for the most part. At 132-minutes it's too long but if you go with it, you're bound to have a reasonably good time. The source material is a mish-mash of Western, sci-fi, fantasy and romance, and all those elements blend persuasively if not always perfectly on screen.
The romantic leads, however, are easy on the eye, even if they aren't fully fleshed out (well, except for Collins' cleavage; bound to become this generation of young boys' Princess Leia in bikini). Kitsch, best known for his role on TV's Friday Night Lights, makes for a muscular, handsome and relatively wooden hero although not without charm and humour. And Collins, other than being a beauty, gives Dejah a girl power injection and smarts (Dejah happens to be a scientist too).
Comparisons with Avatar will be both expected and not unwarranted with John Carter, but given that Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel pre-dates that 3D extravaganza by almost 100 years (and that Avatar shamelessly "borrows" from other sources, Dances With Wolves and Fern Gully to name but two), claims of plagiarism are rather redundant.
And if John Carter never reaches the epic-ness of Avatar (other than in its bloated run time), I'm not sure that can be counted as a failing. For if the original intention of Disney and Andrew Stanton was to bring Burroughs' space opera to life, with all that that entails for a modern audience -- CGI creatures, requisite explosions, and a none-too-healthy serving of cheese, camp and Kitsch -- then John Carter is, by and large, a triumph.
Of course the audience, and thus box office figures, will determine if John Carter is a success (and sequels ensue). And that will always be the case, whether you live on Earth or Barsoom.