“Lost in this world, found in another”
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy and Willem Dafoe
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Confederate Captain John Carter (Kitsch) has devoted his life to misanthropy and the quest for mythical treasure. A pushy cavalry recruiter and a chance encounter lead him to Barsoom, the dying planet Mars, where he discovers strange powers and perhaps a new direction in life.
On Barsoom, Carter meets the four-armed, green-skinned Tharks, a barbaric tribe led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe) and then encounters Dejah Thoris (Collins), a badass fightin’ princess of SCIENCE! trapped in an arranged betrothal to the leader of her city’s enemies, Sab Thaan (West). Fleeing with Dejah and his Thark ‘mother’ Sola (Morton), Carter seeks for a way home, while everyone else seems intent on embroiling him in their causes.
What’s right with it?
John Carter is gorgeous. The Martian landscapes? Gorgeous. The light-ships? Gorgeous.
Costumes and set design? Gorgeous. Lynn Collins? Gorgeous. Taylor Kitsch? Well, I’m no authority, but given how the fangirls reacted to his casting as Gambit, I’m going to suggest maybe a bit gorgeous.
The cast are superb (mostly.) Kitsch plays Carter as an adorkable mix of mythic badass and bumbling everyman, and the support is impeccable, from Hinds as Dejah’s well-meaning father to Strong as the Machiavellian Matai Shang, the Thern puppetmaster set up as a villain for the unrealised franchise. My absolute favourite, however, has to be Purefoy’s Kantos Kan, whose brief appearances are a joy.
Oh, and then there are the Tharks, whose barbarism is interpreted as the gleefully anarchic behaviour of a teenage gang. Their big damn heroes moment is less a cavalry charge and more like someone gave the Warriors the keys to some flying tanks. Dafoe and Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church and Polly Walker as their Thark-right opposite numbers, give weight and heart to what could have been stock natives.
The action scenes are spectacular, and balance the awesome power of Carter’s earth-forged muscles with the slightly ludicrous nature of bounding around the landscape like Tigger in the grip of extreme ‘roid rage.
What’s wrong with it?
And yet the film is not without its problems.
Dejah Thoris is a badass fightin’ princess of SCIENCE! – and also Mars – right up until about halfway through the film, when she just… gives up. Moreover, she gives up right after a discovery that confirms all of her theories, and when she could easily subdue Sab Than. It is in fact the least likely moment for her to give up, except that then Carter has nothing left to do.
Speaking of Dejah Thoris, maybe it’s because she’s struggling with the accent, but Lynn Collins performance is oddly theatrical, especially compared to Kitsch’s laid back delivery. The only other real disappointment is Dominic West, an excellent actor in many ways, but unable to convey the unalloyed menace that the role of Sab Than demands of him.
The romance between Dejah and Carter seems to develop too quickly, largely due to the compression of the time spent together in the books.
The film is also really quite long. It’s not Dances with Calots, but it’s well over two hours and it feels it.
How bad is it really?
Aside from feeling its length sometimes, John Carter is a blast. I actually really enjoy it, for all its flaws.
Best bit (if such there is)?
- In order to rescue Carter, Kantos Kan tries to get himself taken hostage, but Carter is so slow on the uptake he has to hold a sword to his own throat.
- The Thark horde storms into Zodanga to break up a wedding, but on questioning a guard learn that the wedding is taking place i Helium. Tars Tarkas leans across and smacks Carter on the back of the head.
What’s up with…?
- Woola the Wonder-Calot? Seriously; why to the Tharks not have way more of these? He’s completely awesome, tracking the airborne Carter for miles and taking down Wahoons and Therns with gleeful aplomb.
- Dejah’s sudden crash into apathy? Also, why can’t the film decide if she is a faux or a genuine action girl?
- The Therns’ reluctance to just kill John Carter? They follow him for years afraid that he might find a medallion (and how careless must they be for that to be a concern) but apparently the masters of the universe can’t or won’t fix it for him to be hit by a cart or anything.
- The Tharks lack of key technology? They never unlock a chain, they cut them instead.
- The Ninth Ray? This is way out of left field and one of the few things not remotely to do with the book.
Production values – Oh my life, the scenery and costume porn on display here is breathtaking, and the score as well. The Green Martians are also brilliant, with their four hands employed to good effect. 2
Dialogue and performances – With a couple of exceptions, the performances are excellent, and while the dialogue may occasionally be portentous bullshit, it never intends to be much else. It only really falls down when someone tries to explain what’s going on, apparently unaware that the audience members who are still on for the ride are the ones who don’t really need or want that much deep character exploration. 7
Plot and execution – A little shakier. It’s not really clear why Sab Than is so willing to put his own life at risk, nor why Dejah is then willing to surrender to him, which means that the plot hinges on a contrivance. 12
Randomness – Mostly points here are for plot conveniences, such as Dejah’s loss of drive and Woolah’s mystical timing. 6
Waste of potential – There are so many things that even at a brief glance could have been trimmed or built up to make a better Mars film. In particular the pseudo-mystical Therns are a strange addition to the similar, but simpler plot of the book. 11