ANDREW Stanton’s John Carter is a beautifully made, intelligently scripted, intriguing and exciting sci-fi adventure that demands to be seen on the big screen, whether in 2 or 3D.
This world of exotic space princesses, alternative alien technologies and extra-terrestrial tribes on a war footing will look familiar to fans of Star Trek, Star Wars etc.
But Carter – written and directed by Pixar’s Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) – is based on a 100-year-old story from the Tarzan guy, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
So rather than Carter ripping off Star Wars, it is rather the case that George Lucas, the creator of that later saga, “borrowed” from the Burroughs original.
And not just Lucas – Princess Of Mars (the original title of the Burroughs tale) and John Carter (the rather oddly-titled movie version) contain key elements of almost every sci-fi or fantasy movie you could think of, from Flash Gordon to Superman to Dune to Avatar, not to mention Conan, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and The Lord Of The Rings.
But Burroughs was there first (except for Jules Verne. And HG Wells. And a few others. But that’s another story – and another few franchises).
Stanton skilfully juggles timeframes as the titular Civil War veteran, searching for a cave of gold in 19th Century Arizona, finds himself pitched mysteriously on to the planet Barsoom – or Mars, as you may already know it.
Carter (played by a more than passable Taylor Kitsch) soon comes face to face with Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a beautiful, intelligent, intriguing and exciting princess of Mars destined to be married off to calm a war between the humanoid Zodangans and Heliumites.
Then there are the Tharks – tall, upright, four-armed, green and tusked warriors who first encounter Carter and exploit the superpowers he is able to demonstrate due to the planet’s very different atmosphere and gravitational pull.
The Tharks (voiced by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church) have inspired the inevitable comparisons with James Cameron’s Avatar but, again, rather than being cheap clones, they are memorable creations in their own right, seamlessly interacting with the human cast.
Like Avatar’s Na’vi, the Tharks have thoughts, dreams, emotions and conflicts of their own, making it easy for an audience to identify while forgetting they are motion-captured, computer-generated entities (Jar Jar Binks, anyone?).
Set-pieces include Carter taking on a whole army single-handedly and a gladiatorial battle in the Tharks’ arena, between Carter and two Kong-like white apes.
But John Carter, the movie, isn’t simply about fast-cut action and dizzying spectacle.
Stanton brought in Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon (Kavalier & Clay) to help polish the dialogue – not all the hokey, expositional stuff, but the real people talking stuff – and exchanges between the virtuous Carter and the passionate Dejah Thoris have a depth of meaning far beyond face value.
Stanton said of his movie-making, with Pixar and here: “I’m trying to encapsulate something of that life-affirming quality you get in arthouse films.”
He has achieved it again in this perhaps unlikely vehicle while echoing the original text’s attempts to reflect on contemporary racial, national and international conflicts.
Whether or not Disney realised all that before they spent their $250 million is neither here nor there.
John Carter may not become a Star Wars-sized hit but is already a bona fide cult artefact sure to have a significant and much-admired life beyond its initial cinema run.
Kitsch – Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine – has a busy year ahead with some major entries on his CV. Nothing on show here suggests he isn’t up to it.
Collins – who also appeared in the Wolverine picture – gives the movie a real pick-me-up every time she is on screen and that, thankfully, is often.
Mark Strong, Dominic West and Ciaran Hinds also impress in smaller roles.