Blu-ray Review: John Carter / Cert: 12 / Director: Andrew Stanton / Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon / Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West / Release Date: Out Now
“John Carter of Mars sounds much better” says our hero towards the end of this poorly received big screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s obscure, long-forgotten early twentieth-century pulp sci-fi superhero. Shame lily-livered Disney execs didn’t agree, lumbering the film with a title that suggests a drama about the life of a trainee solicitor or, worse still, chartered accountant in the North of England. But I suppose it’s easy to understand Disney’s jitters as films set on or concerning the dead red planet have never really found favour at the Box Office and movies like John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, Mission to Mars and Red Planet are conspicuously absent from most people’s ‘favourite film’ lists. But even hiding the film’s fantastical credentials under a bland title couldn’t bring the audiences in - and Disney are left nursing a mighty open financial wound which they can only hope and pray will be partially healed by a decent performance in the home entertainment market.
And you know, I think they might be in with a shout. Because with all the brouhaha and the recriminations dying down and the dust settling, it’s finally possible to sit back and actually look at the film rather than obsess over its Box Office failure and whose fault it was. And John Carter really isn’t such a terrible movie after all. Considering that it’s widely agreed that John Carter shares a lineage with the likes of Superman and the Star Wars saga, it’s baffling that this huge epic fantasy adventure didn’t connect with the public because really, it’s all up there on the screen. Once American Civil War Confederate Army Captain John Carter (Kitsch) is whisked off to Mars (or Barsoom as it’s known amongst the locals) by a mystical medallion it’s not long before he’s encountering tall four-armed green-skinned Martian Tharks, discovering he can leap tall distances in a single bound due to the planet’s low gravity and plunged into the middle of a violent ongoing dispute between two great Barsoom cities with the Princess of Mars as the ultimate prize and a deadly infinite energy ray as the ultimate weapon and also, possibly, the key to Carter’s way back to Earth. Loads going on, lots of exotic colourful aliens, beasts, giant white apes and this reviewer’s own personal favourite, the super fast Martian dog; I’d like one for Christmas, please. Plenty of action too, with Carter bouncing around the Barsoom landscape battling hordes of Tharks and their enemies the more humanoid Therns. But there’s an inevitable sense of déjà vu about it; we’ve seen too many CGI battles over the years and despite all the swash-buckling, the giant airships, the bangs and the flashes, all John Carter really has to offer in the way of spectacle is a few more. Technically it’s outstanding - this film has taken so long to come to the screen because it just wouldn’t have been possible on this scale even a decade ago. The FX work is frequently breathtaking and the Barsoom civilization is beautifully rendered with an astonishing attention to detail and a real breadth of creative vision.
But unfortunately this is an emotionally arid piece of work. Carter apparently wants to get back to Earth but he really doesn’t seem all that bothered. Taylor Kitsch utterly fails to imbue Carter with any real sense of awe and wonder at the new environment he’s in - this is an 18th century American soldier, remember, not some tech-savvy 21st century whizzkid - and his romance with Princess Dejah Thoris (Collins) is as dull and unconvincing as it is predictable and inevitable. The Tharks all look the same so it’s hard to muster up much interest in the antics of Tarkas his daughter Sola and with Dominic West wasted as a bland raging bad guy it’s left to the charismatic Mark Strong, Hollywood’s go-to weird bald alien (see Green Lantern) to lift proceedings when they inevitably sag between battle sequences.
But realistically - and unfortunately - these films aren’t about characters and proper relationships; they’re about spectacle, about visuals, about showing the audience something they’ve never seen before. John Carter offers just about enough acceptable spectacle to make it worth a punt but it really isn’t different enough to make it memorable, reminding us of all those other CGI-heavy films we’ve endured over the last few years. Hamstrung by its studio, its bland star, clichéd script and ho-hum storyline, it was always going to be a tough call for John Carter. That the film still manages to be enjoyable despite the odds stacked against it is a tribute to the dedication and perseverance of director Andrew Stanton and his team who realised their dream of bringing their childhood hero to the screen only to see their dream become a bit of a nightmare.
Extras: Decent ‘making of’, deleted scenes, dull bloopers, commentary and featurette on the history of John Carter and the 100 years it took to translate the character to the screen.