REVIEW: John Carter

Patrick Hetherington reviews Disney’s latest film.

Barsoom Disney Dominic West film Helium John Carter live-action Lynn Collins Mark Strong Mars movie Taylor Kitsch

Like most people with heartstrings, I love Disney films. From Steamboat Willie to Toy Story and beyond, Disney is the master of animated entertainment.

However, when it comes to ‘live-action Disney’ -by which I mean its efforts to tackle more adult stories without really committing to the ‘adult’ part- it’s a case of hit-or-miss. Prince of Persia, Tron: Legacy and three of the four Pirates of the Caribbean features can drink to that, and herein lies my main problem with John Carter.

Based on the first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, the film chronicles cavalryman-turned-treasure hunter John Carter as he is mysteriously transported to the war-torn planet of Mars (or ‘Barsoom’ as the locals call it). Since his body is adapted for Earth’s stronger gravity, John can leap incredible distances and deliver super-strong fighting blows, abilities which make him a valuable asset to the nomadic ‘Tharks’, and a substantial hindrance for the warring civilizations of ‘Zodanga’ and ‘Helium’ (the latter of which I just couldn’t take seriously when referred to in conversation). And of course there’s the romantic subplot between Carter and the Helium princess. Reluctant hero, check. Miss Xena Warrior Princess 2012, check. English bad guy, alien dog, still to come.

So what’s good? Frankly, a lot. I was genuinely surprised how enjoyable I found it. My first post-viewing thought: THIS is how Avatar and Star Wars, Attack of the Clones should’ve been done! Wondrous alien worlds and their conflicts WITHOUT being boring. The creatures and cultures of Mars are so well visualised, taking the time to show us the intricacies of societal functions without getting bogged down. We get birthing processes, rituals, ceremonies, it all just works so naturally, as does the solution to the age-old sci-fi problem of ‘how to have an alien language that humans can understand without resorting to subtitles’.

Cast-wise, I couldn't help getting relative-newcomer Taylor Kitsch (as John Carter) confused with James Franco. Please say I’m not the only one having this problem? For anyone who has played ‘Red Dead Redemption’, Carter is basically John Marston. For everyone who hasn’t, think Clint Eastwood without the growling. Dominic West (The WireCenturion) as the main villain/stooge does a good job with a character who is clearly out of control, a slave to his own greed. Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass) once again slides comfortably into the role of the sinister mastermind. Then there's Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as the princess…oh yes.

Problems? The story does take time to get going. We spend far too long setting up plot points which ultimately get resolved in seconds. The entire first act is comparatively deplorable: slow, aimless, completely pointless sequences. However, the greatest crime of this film is that it does not push itself. Disney was not the right company for this project, sticking to its child-friendly reputation when it should have seized the opportunity to expand into more mature storytelling. The story draws parallels between the Mars conflict and the atrocities of American westward expansion, exploring religious practices and ordeals like an Indy film. At what point did someone suddenly go “you know what this film really needs? An alien dog”? Having a proud reputation is fine, but letting that reputation impede your efforts to diversify is not.

‘John Carter’ is a good film. It COULD have been a VERY good film! It’s fun, it’s compelling, it doesn’t force action or cheap laughs down your throat like your average action-adventure flick. It has its problems, but ultimately it’s a solidly good film.

Email us at [email protected] to submit content.