Better late than never eh? I mean me getting around to seeing this. Not the fact that a film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels has been doing the rounds for about 80 years now. Also it only took Disney about 1 year to suck the life out of the film prior to release by making some really bizarre marketing choices. But how has the film actually turned out after all these years of countless cancelled projects? Click the link to find out.
So why was the “Of Mars” part of the title dropped? The key part of the title that informed audiences staring at the billing card at the cinema that this was in fact a science fiction film and not a spin off of ER starring Noah Wylie. It’s all down to superstition. See there’s this myth in Hollywood that having the word “Mars” in a films title is a guaranteed way to make a film flop. Except here it would have sold half the film for Disney. You would have looked at the title at the cinema and thought “that film sounds like it’s about a guy on Mars”. Then Disney proceeded to promote the film without the slightest mention that it’s story has been around for 100 years. That it is the sci-fi epic that influenced pretty much every sci-fi epic of its ilk over that century. They failed to make it clear who the villains are by only showing the most alien looking race when they’re fighting or shouting when they’re mostly the good guys here. Disney messed the promotion of this film up no end and it’s entirely their fault that John Carter is struggling right now at the box office.
What’s the worst part though? That the film is actually pretty damn good. Not perfect by any means, but pretty damn good non-the-less. The story follows a down on his luck Confederate soldier called, handily for the films title, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) in the space year 1868 who discovers a cave full of gold. Oh, and a space man he shoots and accidentally uses a medallion of to transport himself to Mars. Luckily this Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call it, has a breathable atmosphere. Also thanks to its low gravity and, Carter’s superior human muscles, John is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Well, there aren’t that many tall buildings about. Mostly desert. But if there were he’d leap the hell out of them. Basically he wakes up and suddenly he’s Superman. Carters adventure then moves through a whole series of convoluted events that lead to him being a hero to the downtrodden and the saviour of one of Barsoom’s last civilised races. Naturally there’s a Princess to be romanced (Dejah Thoris played by Lynn Collins) and evil to overcome in the form of evil space monk and overall snappy dresser Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
That convolution of events I mentioned is possibly John Carters main issue. There’s a lot of motion from one place to the next with a constant muddle of reasoning and motivation that, at times, it can become a little tough to follow. It doesn’t help that the planets inhabitants use so many bizarre words for quite helpful descriptive terms. For example: Jeddak is a leader or king, each of the three races has one. One of the alien races is called the Helium, which to use already has a meaning. Then there’s the Tharks and the Therns, the Zodangans and so on and so on. Two of the races are humanoid so the fact they identify as being separate races with only the colour of their flags or capes to inform the viewers of who is who becomes another point of confusion.
It would have served the film greatly if they had simplified this. Call the Jeddaks King so when coupled with names such as Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe on stilts) or Sab Than (Dominic West) we aren’t being hit over the head with three made up words in a row. King Tars and King Than would have helped a lot. The characters move to so many locations with at least three instances of deception and time wasting being the reasons that you’re never sure where they’re truly headed. Again, simplifying the journey and the motivations would have helped. This isn’t meant to be a complex film requiring you to have a full level of mental investment. That said, kudos for keeping it true to the book as much as possible with those aspects. It’s just that sometimes a bit of creative restraint is beneficial.
What the film excels at though is how it looks. The majority of exteriors are real locations with models and CGI being used to add in the alien buildings and architecture where needed. It would have been so easy for director Andrew Stanton to Lucas the hell out of this and green screen the deserts in. Look at the screen-shots I’ve posted here and then recall how Attack Of The Clones looked. I dare you to tell me that the latter looked more real. There’s a few CGI extended interiors, which always stand out like a sore thumb to me, but mostly the films locations look spectacular. Wouldn’t wanna holiday there though. On top of that the costumes and special effects are all top tier. I reckon this’ll be a shoe in for a best special effects award nomination at next years Oscars. You really do see every cent of the films apparent $250million budget on that screen.
The action scenes are all handled well and quite smartly, especially early on. The first 2 are a flying ship fight in the middle of a sand cloud, meaning you don’t see everything just yet, and the second is a good old fashioned western shoot-out between Confederate soldiers and a band of Native Americans. Both mean that we haven’t had the spectacle of the Mars battles spoiled for us just yet. We also see how on Earth John Carter may be a fighter, but he isn’t the best in the world. Whereas on Mars he can take on a whole army single handed. The film also has quite a few brutal moments of violence for a 12 certificate. It seems as long as the blood isn’t red Disney is fine with anything.
Performances are tipped at just the right level for the film managing to avoid coming across as stuffy or forced. It’s a fun adventure flick and the cast make sure that’s how it feels. Lynn Collins is maybe a little too straight faced as the love interest, which probably isn’t helped by the fact that she seems to be a jack of all trades rather than a clearly defined person. Honestly she has more roles than Barbie. Scientist, Princess, Warrior and Love interest are all titles she wears at some point. Sometimes a princess just needs to be a princess, ya know.
Overall the film is a fun, if somewhat muddled, action adventure romp. Its science is fully pushed towards the Star Wars side of the scale as opposed to Star Trek which helps to stop you questioning the logic of a lot of it. There’s a fair helping of fun humour, including a nice little jab at the films title change towards the end, and whilst you’re never sure where it’s headed the tone never falters too far into the wrong side of fun. Recommended then and hopefully this film will get a good strong fan following. One strong enough to get this film a second chance. Right, time to run spell check. It is gonna have a field day with this review.