Cinema: John Carter
A story like JOHN CARTER is one that is meant for cinema. It’s telling that it has taken over twenty years for it to reach screens and has seen a host of actors take up the mantle, only for it to fall to one side or collapse under the demands of the stars themselves. Of course, the story itself is timeless. This year marks the centenary of its first publication and, more than anything, proves that time doesn’t diminish a brilliant story. However, it’s the retelling of it that can.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it follows the eponymous character, played by Taylor Kitsch, as he is transported from Civil War-era Arizona to the wastelands of Mars, or as it’s known to the locals, Barsoom. The red planet is host to three warring civilisations – the scientific Helium, the warlike Zodanga and the alien Tharks – each with their own leader, vying for supremacy over the other. Into the planetary civil war comes John Carter. Thanks to the gravitational changes on Mars, he’s endowed with super-strength and the ability to jump higher than any man or Thark is capable of. Parallel to this, a shape-shifting Mark Strong is working in the background to bring about the destruction of Mars and Earth, also. The plot is rich with grand old themes such as redemption, noble savages and planetary romances. Indeed, the film itself is a space opera in every sense of the word. The acting throughout JOHN CARTER is over-the-top; but it wouldn’t work if it was played with reigned-in performances. The chin-stroking, insidious Strong – here known as a Thern – is every bit the villain of the piece. There’s no glimmer of humanity or misguided ideals – he’s just plain evil. And that’s why JOHN CARTER works and, in certain aspects, doesn’t work. The characters are archetypes in one form or another – Taylor Kitsch is playing a role Harrison Ford would have done in the 80′s. Dominic West, playing the prince Sab Than, is a mindless warlord that’s driven by unseen forces. Likewise, Ciaran Hinds plays the well-meaning but gormless leader of the Helium and Lynn Collins is the sassy female counterpart. Regardless of how identifiable the characters may be, the story does have setbacks. While the plot itself is easy enough to follow, the pacing does become bogged down and it does get hard to follow scenes. It’s not the fault of the screenwriters, mind. If they had changed the plot and story to make it more accessible and plausible to audiences, it wouldn’t have been the story that was there – it simply would have been inspired by it. The film goes to great lengths to honour the original story and its themes – and that really is commendable.
This is Andrew Stanton‘s first live-action film, although JOHN CARTER is very much in his oeuvre. Having previously directed WALL-E and FINDING NEMO, he’s no stranger to using CGI films and using the vast technology that’s available to the modern director. Unlike George Lucas, however, he hasn’t made soulless characters in the computer-generated Tharks. The actors (Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton) imbue them with real heart. True, they’re completely unrecognisable and bare no resemblance to their characters at all. Nevertheless, you really do pull for the Tharks and buy into their struggle. Preferring huge desert landscapes more than closed-in green-scene sets, Stanton is using reality far better than one would have initially expected, given his background. As mentioned earlier, the acting has thrown out subtlety in favour of lavish, operatic performances that can be construed as hammy. In spite of this, it doesn’t feel like it’s disingenuous. The film really is evocative of the great sci-fi films of the 1980′s, such as NEVER-ENDING STORY, WILLOW and yes, STAR WARS. From John Carter bravely fighting the Tharks alone to Michael Giacchino‘s magnificent score, Stanton is riffing heavily on these films and doing it well. You’d almost sit and wonder what it would be like if he was given a chance at the STAR WARS prequels.
JOHN CARTER is not without flaws. Of course it has flaws. Considering how long it took to get this to the screen, it’s any wonder it was made at all. It wasn’t just a case of technology catching up with it. The right director had to be found for it and the right actor had to play the title character. Taylor Kitsch doesn’t have much in the way of experience in holding up a film. Seeing as how he was relegated to a filler-role in the depressingly awful X-MEN: ORIGINS, he’s never been given a chance to shine in his own right. This isn’t really the film for him to do it, though. Yes, he may be the title character and he does a very good job of it, but the film is about so much more. It’s about the spectacle and the rush of excitement that is gone from modern sci-fi films. Very often nowadays, sci-fi films are laden with dark messages of foreboding, of society reaching technological singularities with dire consequences and so on. It’s not that these are bad films or anything – quite the opposite. But the wonder and suspension of sci-fi has gone out of modern cinema. The only film that’s come close to capturing it has been the STAR TREK remake. JOHN CARTER is pure escapism, of leaving this world behind – and walking on Mars. History will be kind to JOHN CARTER.
DROP-D RATING: 8.5 / 10