Director: Andrew Stanton
Originally going by the rather more evocative John Carter of Mars, Disney reportedly dropped the second part of the title of this fantasy epic in order to attract a larger, more diverse audience.
With an outlay said to be approaching $300m riding on it, they'll be desperate to secure those votes if this is going to perform at the box office more like their Alice in Wonderland than last year’s disastrous Mars Needs Moms.
On paper the right ingredients are all in place; there’s an exotic setting, fantastical beasties, lashings of digital effects and it’s all incredibly shiny, albeit dulled by the muddy brown gauze of 3D. But something is missing, something which only becomes apparent when you realise you’ve sat through two thirds of the movie and you still don’t really know what the main story is.
A prologue on Mars is first rate mumbo-jumbo, introducing rival cities who’ve been warring for centuries, with Dominic West the chief baddie squaring up against Ciaran Hinds. Hinds’ daughter must marry West in order to save the city, yet West is in possession of a weapon given to him by Mark Strong’s mysterious super-being that has the power to destroy anything in its path and which ought to render much of what follows moot.
Meanwhile, on earth, the year is 1881 and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a rich explorer and ex-soldier who apparently dies suddenly, and leaves his estate to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs – a nod to the man who wrote the John Carter novels on which the movie is based.
Among his possessions is a book that Edgar starts reading and which provides a flashback to 1868, and for a while this turns into a post-Civil war western, as we see John Carter seek a fortune in Apache gold.
But instead he finds a mysterious amulet and gets transported to Mars where he’s taken prisoner by a group of ten feet tall, four-armed green dudes. The gravity on Mars has given Carter the ability to leap huge distances and he impresses them with his fighting skills as part of a lengthy and lumpy setup that overdoes the subplots.
Between this and the power struggle going on between the humanoids, it’s something of a guddle that borrows from all sorts: Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Gladiator, Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and more. As a result it’s far from the most compelling mythology ever put forward in fantasy cinema, never quite managing to create a satisfying one of its own. Of course you could argue that Burroughs set the template for those films when he created the story almost a century ago, but visually there’s no getting away from John Carter’s forebears.
The central story is a largely impenetrable gobbledegook, long on exposition and light on action, at least in the first half. But in the brief bursts of swordplay and leaping about that eventually get peppered in, it’s very impressive stuff that should be leading to a big action climax that never really arrives.
It’s never boring exactly yet it never quite catches fire either, though compensating for that are some truly breathtaking sets and special effects. If as much care and attention had gone into the story then John Carter could have been a cracker, but as it stands, Disney may have to settle for modest success rather than true blockbuster status.