Let’s get this out of the way before we begin; Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series has influenced a lot of science fiction cinema. In fact, it pretty much underpins the whole of the space opera sub-genre, with its tale of an Earth-man transported to Mars bearing the hallmarks of pretty much every film adhering to the “Ordinary Joe In A New Situation” archetype that ever has been (Flash Gordon, the original Star Wars Trilogy and Avatar to name but three). While its influence on this particular genre obviously shouldn’t be held against it, it will undoubtably come up when discussion on Andrew Stanton’s film comes to works of a similar ilk.
Speaking of influences, its an unlikely film that John Carter resembles the most. There’s more than a hint of David Lynch’s Dune in Stanton’s film, from the flawed ambition and over the top alien worlds, to the quirky and unpronounceable competiting races and the overly complicated “Spice”-like MacGuffins that lead both the Lynch film and John Carter. Stanton’s film also recalls Lynch’s flawed masterpiece in its unnecessarily complicated storyline. That such a theoretically simple concept could be so overwrought with unnecessary baggage genuinely boggles the mind, especially when one takes some of the more unseemly characteristics employed by the producers that appear to tune in to pastures more familiarly associated with Disney fare (a genuinely bizarre dog-like companion follows our hero everywhere, with comical, cartoonish speed and Flinstones-style legs; while from the novels, he sure would make a nice soft-toy…). A welcome and smart wit runs under the rather po-faced main standing, and does its best to balance out the complications.
The chief vessel for this tongue-in-cheek approach to the plummier facets of the film like in the eponymous protagonist. Carter quips in the face of some of the more absurd notions raised, raising an eyebrow and retorting as and when necessary. Elsewhere, subversion leads the way: riffing on the ultra-cinematic imagery of the American vista, an visage as iconic and ingrained unto the public consciousness perhaps as much as any in the history of the American picture, Stanton transplants the plains of Monument Valley for the landscapes of Mars. One of the races, the 15 ft. tall green skinned, four-armed Tharks, are a clear analog for the Native Americans that our protagonist has just fled from on Earth, while as a somewhat disillusioned partisan of the American Civil War its certainly interesting to see John Carter make a dramatic return from the belly of a beast as a fully-fledged True Blue, coated in the blood of a fallen enemy.
Perhaps the single most interesting aspect of this project is the role of Andrew Stanton, he formerly of Pixar and the brains behind Wall·E and Finding Nemo (as one of the key members of the Pixar team Stanton also has writing credits on most of their work, from Toy Stories 1, 2 and 3 to Monsters, Inc.). Something that becomes immediately apparent within the opening moments of John Carter is that Stanton clearly has an animators eye for action. A prologue that sets up some of the immediate background of the Mars scenario involves some beautifully constructed and hugely exhilarating camerawork, as the frame flows smoothly through the scene of a dramatic airborne battle. For the most part the film is as visually stunning as one would expect from a filmmaker with Stanton’s resumé, although the 3D aspect leaves a lot to be desired: its almost a shame that the film’s beautiful scenarios are made blurry thanks to the added dimension. A wholly engaging fight sequence undercuts the mid-point of the film, cutting the immediate action on the planet Mars with that of a memory from the protagonists past, with the surprisingly moving scene emphasised by a typically emotive score from Michael Giacchino. From a technical perspective there is little to fault with John Carter, even if some of the CGI does lack a little of the polish one might expect of a project of this ilk.
In the main the cast are fine, if little more. The titular character is ably portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, a charming enough James Franco-type who manages to carry the film quite well, while a supporting cast made up of the likes of Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church, many of whom are unrecognisable under layers of digital make-up, complement the off-kilter source material.