This film is absolutely MASSIVE. Produced by Disney with a budget rumoured to be approaching $300m, it’s one of the biggest and most expensive blockbusters of the year. This is the Dubai of films, the Man City of movies. It could singlehandedly afford to bail out Greece, fund it’s own GOP Presidential Campaign and still have money left over for popcorn.
The thing is, I’m not sure it’s going to do very well.
It’s the name for one thing. As eponymous heroes go, John Carter just sounds a bit underwhelming (as opposed to, say, ‘Matt Harvey’ which would be a fucking outstanding name for a film…) Wasn’t one of the doctors in ER called John Carter? Also there was Coach Carter, the basketball drama staring Samuel L Jackson and Tha Carter III, an album by Lil Wayne. None of these things, however, do I associate with a box office smash.
Then there’s the source material. It’s based on a 1912 pulp fiction serialization, A Princess of Mars, penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs was something of a superstar at the turn of the century, having also created the character of Tarzan. He’s also, apparently, a hugely influential figure in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres with the makers of such films as Star Wars, Flash Gordon and Avatar all acknowledging his influence. I hadn’t actually heard of him, if I’m being honest. But then, to be fair, I’m not 120 years old so I don’t really see why I should have. The problem is, it feels like this adaptation of his work may have missed the boat by a couple of decades. Burroughs may well have got there first, but his characters and storylines have been drawn on so many times that they now feel overfamiliar and clichéd.
Anyway, the plot goes as follows… John Carter is a grizzled Civil War veteran who has headed out West to make his fortune. One day he stumbles into a mysterious cave where he is abruptly transported to Mars or, as it’s known locally, ‘Barsoom’ (the first of many silly and difficult to remember names I’ll be using in this synopsis). On Barsoom he finds that the altered gravitational forces have given him new and exciting powers – most notably the ability to jump really high through the air.
Carter is taken in by The Tharks, a race of 10-foot high six-limbed Jar Jar Binks look-a-likes led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe). They themselves are caught between two warring civilizations; the Zodrangans and The Heliumites. Also, lurking unseen in the background are The Therns, led by Mark Strong, a shadowy race of swarthy religious types who secretly conspire to control world events (wuh woh!! Let’s not open that can of worms…)
Despite the fact that the Martians all possess vastly superior technology and advanced weapons, they’re no match for Carter and his magical jumping superpowers (the same is true here on Earth where the dominant species is widely accepted to be the Kangaroo..) Carter is therefore a game changer in this war with the potential to tip the balance of power to whoever he chooses to side with.
Visually, this film is spectacular. Pixar director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), in his live-action debut, has made the most of the gargantuan budget and created a lavish and immersive world teaming with the most weird and wonderful life forms, landmasses and cityscapes. As 3D epics go, this film easily punches at the same weight as Avatar and you should definitely try to catch it at the IMAX or in 3D.
For me, however, the storyline and characters never quite captured my attention. The action scenes weren’t really exciting enough and, at 132 minutes, the film felt overlong. Admittedly, I’m not really the target audience for this movie. I mainly like films with lots of swearing, nudity and bits where people’s eyeballs explode. None of which happen here. This is very much a film for kids (and their reluctant parents) and it will all depend on how many of them decide to see it on whether it becomes the multi-film franchise that Disney clearly hopes it will.
Burroughs apparently wrote 11 books in the John Carter series, so god help us if it does…
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