John Carter (2012)
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West and others
Okay, shall we dare say it, whisper it maybe? If we use hushed tones maybe it will be okay... Let's try. John Carter of Mars. Dammit! Or, failing that, Princess of Mars. Maybe you've heard the various stories about why the studios decided not to use Mars, or indeed Princess, in title. Some said it was because they'd lose a big section of the audience if they used the latter. Boys don't go to see films about Princesses, they said. Some said it was the curse of Mars. Films with the red planet in their title tend to under-perform. Mars Needs Moms? Big flop. Mission to Mars? Huge disaster. (Though that has more to do with the fact that it's a steaming pile of poo than the fact that it has Mars in the title). Whatever the case, keeping Mars away from the posters didn't work and John Carter lost a lot of money. Critics were pretty rude about the movie and it looks like a sequel is unlikely.
However, I'm going to go on record and say, you know what, John Cater is pretty good. Our hero, the guy on the poster (Taylor Kitsch), is a Civil War veteran who, in the course of pursuing the promise of gold in them thar hills, comes across a strange device. He's then set about by strange alien types who trigger the device sending Mr Carter hurtling across the solar system to Mars. On Mars, Carter finds that he has developed extraordinary powers. He can leaps in great bounds; he can punch out aliens with one blow. Soon Mr Carter has his shirt off and is befriended by a bunch of alien warriors. Elsewhere on Mars the baddies (clearly defined because they wear red), lead by Dominic West are trying to take over the goodies' (they're the ones in blue) city. The leader of the goodies relents and promises his daughter (Lynn Collins) to the leader of baddies in order that his city not get blasted to dust. John Carter must rescue the princess and stop the war. Please note, however, that the princess gives as good as Carter in kicking ass and taking names.
For all the 'fantasy speak' and silly names, the plot is pretty much straight-forward. In fact, if you've seen Flash Gordon you may well be familiar with it. And like Flash Gordon, John Carter is fun. It's a perfect encapsulation of the pulp joy to be found in the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his ilk. It's also rather lovely to look at. The designs of the costumes and buildings recall Frazetta's work and the aliens are well realised and backed-up by a great voice cast. Okay, it's silly. But it's silly in a fun family film way, and Disney are very good at silly fun family films. There may not be a sequel, but John Carter succeeds in capturing the excitement and sense-of-wonder of the source material. What Disney have produced here is far from an artistic failure, even if it's not a commercial one.
(7 out of 10)
I only first heard about this film on the BBC News when it was announced that it had been an enormous flop for Disney but now they can relax as their latest two have been successes. The film was not as poor as I was expecting but the plot is incomprehensible, the opening reminiscent of Dune when we get a nice unclear explanation, and the film could easily have been edited down a good 45 minutes.
Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter with your typical gutso and heart, but unlike most actors cast in such a role, he does not give a wooden performance and portrays Carter as wounded man, haunted by a terrible loss. He is ably supported by the Ornella Muti lookalike Lynn Collins, who ladies will be pleased to see, is a better fighter than Carter. Willem Dafoe gives excellent support as the leader of the Tharks but aside from these three leads, the cast is dominated by Brits - Sammantha Morton, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Ciaran Hinds to name but a few.
The special effects are spectacular but what surprised me most is that Disney surprisingly do not flinch from showing the flashback scenes of the Civil War, particularly when we learn of the trauma that haunts Carter or when one of the Tharks, the goodies that Carter befriends, is branded with a hot iron.The ending comes across as a pure tribute to Flash Gordon as Carter is seen 'flying, flying on a rocket cycle' and crashes into the building where the wedding is taking place. It just missed Brian May ramming up the Wedding March.
The film loses it here and there and is not sure of where it's going, but the ending is succinct and moving, but you do wonder why it took Carter 10 years to come up with the solution. I have to say it's a shame there probably won't be a sequel, but apparently, it broke box office records in Russia, so you never know.
6 and a half out of 10 (are we allowed halves?)