Now playing at Scotiabank
To the uninitiated, John Carter could be mistaken for the most recent Disney creation. To science-fiction fans, however, the character of John Carter is even better-known than Edgar Rice Burroughs' other famous hero, Tarzan.
Burroughs first published a John Carter tale in novel form in 1917, as A Princess of Mars, and there were 10 sequels, the latest written in 1948.The fantastical tales about the earthling who travels through time to battle martians have inspired filmmakers and authors alike; the Burroughs crater on Mars is named in his honour.
Fans have been waiting expectantly for the film, so those are some big space boots to fill. And with a $250-million production tab, there's a lot at stake. Charged with the task is Taylor Kitsch, a Vancouver native best known for TV's Friday Night Lights.
Kitsch plays Carter, a Virginia cavalryman-turned-prospector who enters a creepy cave and, a few surprises later, finds himself in the yellow dust of a foreign planet. Turns out it's Mars, though the natives call it Barsoom, and its resources are quickly being used up. That has caused the remaining species to battle over what's left. The Tharks are the first inhabitants John meets, and he's justifiably perplexed: they are green and have extra arms, and they shoot those of their young too slow in hatching from their eggs.
Carter is their prisoner and their pet, until he exhibits a unique skill and a fighting ability that could come in handy with the Zodangans and the red ones who, John is happy to notice, look a lot like his pals back on Earth. The red ones are from Helium, the last city to fall to the Zodangans, and led by Ciaran Hinds. Carter takes special notice of the warrior princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who needs his help in saving her home city; in exchange she might just help him get home.
The film is spectacular but gets spectacularly confusing in parts, what with those shape-shifting oracles who keep popping up to spoil all the fun (Mark Strong). What is clear is the level or workmanship to the motion capture process and the film's excellent CG work, which aspires to be like Avatar (which owes much to Burroughs' work).
Supporting performances by Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, James Purefoy and Thomas Haden Church. But Kitsch shoulders the movie, which is to say, he is shirtless and flexes throughout. Classically trained Lynn Collins is a good match as the princess, even when she's forced to wear gold space bikinis and ramble about "ninth ray isolids."
Andrew Stanton is new to live-action (seasoned in Pixar), and can't quite decide which of the epic battles to feature, so exploits each one equally, making things lag about halfway through. This is kind of what Cowboys and Aliens aspired to be, with a little humour and a little Gladiator thrown in for good measure.
The film stays more or less true to Burroughs' work and is a great bet for pulp fiction fans and older children. John Carter is a family film of epic proportions, with plenty of wiggle room for a sequel.