John Carter’s closest recent parallel is probably Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, in that both films feature fantasy concepts that a contemporary, mainstream audience may find hard to swallow. Thor pulled it off by presenting its world up front and delivering it all straight-faced instead of resorting to eye-rolling irony or tortured attempts to retcon the source material. The subject matter was treated respectfully and helped to put the audience in an accepting frame of mind. John Carter fumbles this just a little. With clunky lines such as “You can’t just bow down to Zodanga!”, unmemorable character names and a marketing campaign that blinked, you’re left with a film that’s occasionally difficult to swallow. Get past that and you’re left with an enjoyable and good-looking action flick with solid performances and some great set-pieces.
Moans about the title being trimmed to lose the ‘of Mars’ suffix are churlish in light of what the film really is: an introduction. For most of the film, Carter is just John Carter of Virginia and all he wants is to get back to Earth. The film is his journey to become the character he’s better known as, and besides, if you’re going to moan about anything then moan that the title wasn’t ‘A Princess of Mars‘ seeing as that’s the title of the source text OR IS THAT JUST TOO GIRLY FOR YOU, EH?
So, John Carter is an origin story, because all SF and fantasy film adaptations must be first presented as an origin story, though in fairness when your source material is 100 years old it’s probably ok to assume some unfamiliarity. Carter is introduced as a down-on-his luck spectator, harrassed by Captain Bryan Cranston who seems to be in the film only to be the butt of some admittedly good physical gags. In fact, for a film that can be a little po-faced there’s a fair bit of comedy early on, and I wondered if Andrew Stanton’s experience with silent comedy in WALL·E helped for the cute scene in which Carter learns to walk in the reduced gravity of Mars.
It’s when Carter has reached Mars that the film’s pace picks up, and it’s like watching A Phantom Menance but directed by someone with taste and talent. Visually, the film is amazing; effects are consistently excellent, ranging from four-armed, 15ft-tall, green-skinned natives to sweeping views of dead landscapes and steampunk cities. Action sequences, with Carter effortlessly bounding across buildings and single-handedly fighting whole armies, are thrilling.
The cast is strong: Taylor Kitsch is a little too young and smooth to pull off the ‘grizzled and broken Civil War veteran’ look convincingly but comes into his own once he gets his shirt off and starts bounding about the place. His counterpart is Lynn Collins, whose character seemed to be everything at once — a princess, an academic, a sword fighter — until her role degenerated into the ‘princess to be rescued’ standard, destined, one way or another, to be married off to a virtual stranger. Ciarán Hinds adds a touch of flat-faced angsty gravitas and Dominic West does his best though did seem to be acting from the chin a lot. Mark Strong is MARK STRONG as usual and James Purefoy needed to be in the film a lot more.
John Carter isn’t as bad as you may have heard, and perhaps not as good either. At the time of writing, opinions seem to have polarised, with critics rushing to hate it more than their peers, and defensive audiences being unusually forgiving of the film’s flaws. The film does have flaws, but they shouldn’t distract from what is, at heart, a great Saturday morning popcorn film.