Friday, 9 March 2012



The year's first blockbuster: a reported budget of around a quarter of a billion dollars (if you believe the film's IMDb box office page), over two hours long, a truly epic feel about it, crammed with dazzling effects and bizarre alien creatures, with a little bit of emotional and character stuff sprinkled on top, but not enough to detract from the gosh-wow action and adventure, the thrilling action sequences and the monsters. Yet while I enjoyed it just as much as the original Star Wars all those years ago - it's a film in precisely that vein of old-fashioned pulp nonsense - it never really took flight as I'd hoped: for all the technical splendour it doesn't come to glorious life as much as it should. Partly that's due to a hero who's surprisingly charmless for most of the running time, and partly due to a screenplay that threatens to topple into parody at several moments. It's one of those movies that has dialogue of the "My name is Zibok Amraka, Great Nordollo of Vardon" variety delivered with a straight face, and dares you not to giggle.

John Carter is a disillusioned cavalry officer in the American Civil War: no longer concerned with his country or his army following the loss of his wife and child, now only interested in a cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But after a chance encounter with an alien, Carter finds himself lost on the surface of another planet: Mars, known to the inhabitants as Barsoom. He is immediately taken captive by the Tharks, a tribe of tall green creatures with four arms, but impresses them with his ability to leap hundreds of feet in the air (thanks to the different gravitational pull), a skill which comes in useful when flying warships full of humanoids turn up: in the ensuing battle he rescues Princess Dejah Thoris, daughter of Tardos Mors, Jeddak of the City Of Helium. But Dejah has been betrothed to the evil Sab Than, Prince of the City Of Zodanga, and Matai Shang, leader of the Threns, has a fiendish plan for the wedding ceremony....

Neatly, the action is framed with Carter's subsequent death in America and his nephew, one Edgar Rice Burroughs, reading the story in his journals. How faithful this film adaptation is to the original stories I don't know, although a little poking around on Wikipedia suggests it's pretty close. It's perhaps not surprising that the film occasionally reminds you of Avatar, Dune, Star Wars or Flash Gordon - those stories took some inspiration from the John Carter stories. The Tharks are not so dissimilar to the Na'avi from Avatar (admittedly they're a different colour and have more arms and tusks, but facially they're not that distant), and when they first show up there's a brief but horrible moment when you suddenly realise you could be on a planet full of Jar Jar Binkses. On an unrelated note, why the bible quote? What's "My right arms offend me, I shall cut them off!" doing in there?

It is a fair bit of fun: technically it's fantastic with perfectly rendered CGI battles and monsters and cityscapes, and the Michael Giacchino score is rousing and effective (it may actually be his best to date). I opted for 2D rather than the converted 3D option - it was shot in 2D and put through the computer afterwards - and yet again there's nothing in there that screams for the extra dimension. It doesn't need it and the 2D version rattles along perfectly well. But Taylor Kitsch is a peculiarly bland and forgettable lead: I'd no idea who he was and barely a couple of hours after seeing it I'm struggling to think what he looks like without finding a photograph on line. More fun is to be had with the more familiar supports: Ciaran Hinds (the third film I've seen him in this year), Mark Strong, Dominic West.

It could perhaps do with a trim - it's 132 minutes and feels long, particularly in the Earth sections where the film takes too long getting Carter to Mars in the first place - and it could certainly do with a more likable hero. Carter isn't a particularly appealing character for most of the time, a man who isn't interested in the mind-boggling wonders of Mars or the struggles of its oppressed peoples; he just wants to go home so he can dig up some gold and be rich and miserable. But it's still an enjoyable and entertaining fantasy romp with an eye for the truly epic and it avoids so many of the present rash of annoyances with fantasy movies: the fast-shutter photography that eliminates motion blur, thumping synth music, editing everything into an incoherent and incomprehensible mess. In that regard it has a solid, old-fashioned feel about it that's infinitely preferable to the gibberish of the Conan The Barbarian remake, say. Maybe it's not worth two hundred and fifty million dollars - think about that cost when you next walk past the Help The Aged or Dr Barnado's shops - but it's certainly worth the ticket price. For all its flaws, it's pretty damn good. Go see it before they take the 2D prints away.


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