A financial bomb, but an interesting flick.
The titular hero, a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War, finds himself transported to a liveable, populated Mars in 1868, and become embroiled in a conflict between that of the human looking societies of Helium and the more Zodonga. While dealing with the attention of the Tharks, Mars’ other alien race, Carter must also the face the threat of the “Therns”, a secret society plotting behind the scenes.
It’s pretty decent really, the kind of old fashioned, fun science fiction that the genre really needs to take centre stage at times. The source material, a 19th century novel by Edward Rice Burroughs, is adapted to a surprisingly faithful extent – perhaps too faithfully, as some of the books more tedious sections, such as the initial wanderings in the Martian desert, drag along badly for the first hour.
John Carter manages to pump in a lot of nifty actions sequences and dazzling CGI effects (though the 3D is, as ever it seems, overrated) while keeping a pretty decent plot of political change and war going alongside the standard “fish-out-of-war” stuff that surrounds the actual John Carter character, as he gets used to his enhanced strength and agility on the gravity-lite surface of Mars, and the culture he is surrounded by. Of course, the obvious allegory for the United States at the time – the differing human sides as America’s Civil War and the Tharks as Indians – will hardly fail to be lost on anyone, considering how the idea is pushed, especially with the nomad Tharks.
With the exception of those desert sequences where John, the female lead and his Thark buddy go traipsing around looking for…something, the film is generally paced quite well, bookending the main Mars narrative with some excellent stuff back on Earth, especially an amusing few scenes with Bryan Cranston of Malcolm in the Middle, playing an exasperated American Colonel trying to get Carter on his side.
That brings me to the cast. Those supporting the main players are excellent, a list of really good acting talent in the form of Ciaran Hinds as the King of the good guys, James Purefoy as his main lieutenant (a reunion from Rome for those two, in oddly similar roles), Dominic West as the crude boorish bad guy, Willem Defoe as the voice of the Thark leader, Thomas Haden Church as his rival, and Mark Strong as the manipulative leader of the Therns, though Strong is essentially playing the same part he’s played in other movies.
That supporting cast get shafted for screentime unfortunately, in favour of sequences focusing on Carter and his Martian princess. Taylor Kitsch does an acceptable job as Carter, though his emotional range doesn’t really get to move much beyond confusion at his surroundings and generally manliness.
It’s Lynn Collins as Martian princess Dejah who drags the whole thing down, being Rosie Huntington-Whitely-esque in her ability to be little more than eye-candy and actually distract from other performances due to her own deficiencies. She’s doesn’t make you believe that she’s the torn heir to Mars and seems uninterested and lax throughout large parts of the films running time.
Plenty of cheesy dialogue, especially in the romantic sections, also detracts from the experience a bit, but is not so bad as to ruin the whole thing. The score is somewhat forgettable though, which is unfortunate for such a sci-fi epic.
The financial outlook for John Carter is bleak. Whatever it was, director incompetence, studio mismanagement, a poor choice for opening date or a combination of all those things, John Carter is unlikely to see a franchise blossom, which I deem unfortunate. It’s a lot better than you might think and deserves a bigger audience then it is getting. Recommended.