Here is an epic sci-fi notable for various reasons. Firstly, it represents something of a risk on the part of distributors Disney, being as it is a huge-budget production based on a series of books which first appeared in 1912; i.e. a large part of the target audience will likely not have heard of the source material. While big budget adventure films tend to fare well, particularly in the overseas market (and often irrespective of their quality), there are exceptions to that rule; Green Lantern proved last year that, even with a built-in fan base, expensive productions with supposedly wide appeal can still falter, if not fail outright.
This also represents the second time in a few months that Pixar veterans have made their live action debuts, following Brad Bird’s rejuvenation of the Mission: Impossible franchise. That film was ultimately far more successful than John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s at times laudably, and at other times ludicrously, straight-faced interpretation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character. In telling the story of his titular character’s adventures on Barsoom (‘Mars’, to you or I), Stanton goes at it full tilt, embracing the chance to run amuck in a fantastical world of high-camp costumes and sporadically laughable dialogue, and in doing so he irons over many of the film’s cracks, although as a whole it just doesn’t work quite as well as you often wish it did.
Taylor Kitsch, an up-and-coming star who we’ll see again in Peter Berg’s Battleship later in the year, and who spends almost the entire runtime here with his shirt off, does a pretty good job with what he’s given. He plays John Carter, a grizzled and apathetic war veteran who, early on in the film, is refusing fight for his country again. He’s more interested in searching for a mysterious ‘cave of gold’ for as yet unspecified reasons. This is all established in the context of the film’s framing mechanism, which comes in at the beginning and end, in which John’s young nephew Edgar (a wide-eyed Dabyl Sabara, playing a nice nod to the original books’ author) is informed of his uncle’s death. Most of the film, therefore, is in flashback, with Edgar reading from his uncle’s extensive diary.
We learn that in the past, John found his way to Mars and took part in an epic conflict there, the fine details of which we do not need to go into too much detail about here. Suffice it to say, he teams up with the princess (Lynn Collins) of one city which is struggling against the malignant advances of another, while a race of four-armed CGI warriors, the Tharks, act as a wild card between the two. Leaders of the belligerent states take the form of Ciarán Hinds (good) and Dominic West (evil), both good actors who phone in ludicrously hammy performances here. Amidst the CGI environments and constant plot machinations, the story veers between interesting, boring and borderline incomprehensible. The latter instances usually involve Mark Strong’s staring villain Matai Shang, whose presence is given almost no context until right near the end, at which point his explanations are watery at best. It feels like his real contribution is being left for further exploration in a possible sequel.
But will there be one? Initially, it seemed as though Disney was pushing this as a new franchise, but the changing of the film’s title from John Carter of Mars to the more genre-unspecific (and bland) John Carter seems to suggest it hasn’t got a great deal of confidence in it. Whether or not a sequel arrives we’ll have to see, but the flaws in this film, although numerous, aren’t so fundamental that one can’t see potential in the franchise, if it ever became one. There is plenty to like here, it’s just that we only tend to see it in flashes, and what’s good is far too frequently let down by an awkward script (poor Lynn Collins gets most of the tongue-twisty dialogue), some flat performances and a dearth of characters to really root for. The film’s rushed but actually fairly satisfying ending helps round things off adequately enough, but comedy dogs and some strong CGI can only carry this adventure so far.