Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Dominic West
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“You think you know Mars… BUT YOU DO NOT KNOW MARS.” A booming voiceover begins Disney’s epic sci-fi romance. It’s ridiculous. It’s laughable. It sounds incredibly stupid. But right from that daft opening narration, Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is properly charming stuff.
The tale of a confederate US soldier who travels through space, battles green men with shiny blue weapons and falls in love with a princess? It’s the kind of nonsense that could only be written by a barmy warlock in the early 20th Century. And it’s all the better for it. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story may be packed with state of the art mo-cap, but Disney’s latest is as dated as Clash of the Titans, as cheesy as Flash Gordon and as crazy as H.P. Lovecraft. In short, it’s what all old-school fantasy should be: wonderfully bonkers.
John Carter (Kitsch) is a civil war vet from Virginia who wants nothing more to do with fighting. Within minutes, he’s teleported to Mars (sorry, Barsoom). There he finds that no only is there life on the red planet, but that it involves arranged marriages, Ciaran Hinds wearing a breast plate and – you guessed it – civil war.
You see, the Heliums (led by Hinds) are fighting the Zodangans. They’ve been doing it for years. But the Zodangan leader Sab Than (an angry Dominic West) has been given magical blue power by Matai Shang (Strong). Shang is head of the Therns, a mythical race who watch over the planet. It’s soon decided that the only way to stop Sab from wiping out Mars altogether is to hitch him up with Dejah Thoris (Collins), daughter of the breast-plated Hinds. She’s obviously not pleased about the idea.
Where does John Carter stand in all this? He’s in with the Tharks, a race of green monsters with four arms, two tusks and a super-fast green dog thing with a massive tongue – a sidekick that shows George Lucas how cuddly CGI monsters should be done. Led by Willem Dafoe’s chief, they’re a race that feel as real as the humans standing next to them. But John has a special talent that none of the dingy doo-dahs and flippityjibbits possess: he can jump. Really high.
Sounds lame? Well, it isn’t. In one Bambi-esque scene, Carter keeps falling flat on his face as he tries to adjust to the planet’s unfamiliar gravity. It’s a neat moment that nails the thrill of an unknown world. And by heck, Disney (and FX company Double Negative) have created something special in Barsoom. The rocky landscapes give way to winding canyons and secret caves, while solar-powered spaceships zip about with a dizzying speed. In a matter of minutes, Carter is already leaping from one ship to another in the middle of an explosive battle. You’ll wish you could do the same – in that sense, John Carter does for jumping what The Artist did for tap dancing.
There are, of course, problems. Burroughs’ century-old story is unwieldy and long, causing some pacing dips in the middle. There’s also the fact that every sci-fi movie since 1912 has mined Burroughs’ manuscript for ideas. But Carter came first and Stanton trumps his imitators by capturing that retro warmth of an old matinee adventure, something missing in the similar but slightly empty Avatar. Even when set pieces seem identical to Attack of the Clones, WALL-E’s director is smart enough to keep them short – the very opposite of Lucas’ approach.
Stanton’s visuals are a joy, matched by Burroughs’ archetypal (but fully formed) characters. Take one sequence, which cuts from Carter grieving on Earth to him kicking butt on Barsoom, turning solid action into something surprisingly moving. The editing is so smart, in fact, that it even pulls off the film’s awkward framing device, which sees a young Burroughs writing the novel at his uncle’s house.
But forget Earth: Barsoom is where it’s at. And at the centre of it is an inter-galactic romance to rival even that of Luke Skywalker and his sister. In the feisty Dejah and gritty Carter, Disney have a couple that click, a real star-crossed pair. “It must be beautiful on Earth to see people sailing on water,” muses Dejah, immediately after travelling down a river by boat. The dialogue is clumsy and the backstory complex, but John Carter’s cast clearly enjoy navigating their way around Barsoom. And for all the movie’s mistakes, we do too. Because in between the familiar beats of skimpy costumes and hairy monsters, Carter gives cinema audiences what only the most fun sci-fi movies can: the breathless sense of discovering somewhere new.
John Carter is available on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, and on Disney Life, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.
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