John Carter

Fri, Mar 9, 2012, 00:00

Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Willem Dafoe, Polly Walker 12A cert, general release, 130 min

This boys-own Martian adventure looks pallid and ancient on screen, writes DONALD CLARKE

YOU HAVE TO FEEL a little sorry for John Carter of Mars. Currently celebrating his centenary, the intergalactic guerrilla can claim

to have inspired several entire industries. Appearing in a series of celebrated pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carter begat Flash Gordon who begat Star Warswhich begat Avatar(have fun filling in the blanks). Yet, the odd cheapo exploitation piece aside, the Carter stories have, to date, resisted the advances of film-makers.

Over the decades such figures as Robert Rodriguez, Jon Favreau and Ray Harryhausen have had a crack at adapting the stories. So, what can finally have propelled John Carter into cinemas? Well, the film does concern a human soldier transplanted to another planet where he makes friends with enormously tall, oppressed quasi-humanoids. Sound familiar?

What a confusingly post-modern world this is. The finished entity feels like a rip-off of a film that ripped-off several rip-offs of Carter’s own ancient source material. Even Jorge Luis Borges might have found the accidental inter-textuality a tad overwhelming.

There are some good things here. The distinguished novelist Michael Chabon has, in his screenplay, retained a nice framing device that sees the young Burroughs inheriting a journal written by his mysterious uncle. We then flash back to find John Carter (for it is he) living an unsatisfactory life in 19th-century America. A fierce Civil War veteran, now prospecting for gold, Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself buffeted from scruffy bar to prison cell.

This effectively rendered western interlude is interrupted when the hero encounters a strange artefact that transports him to a sandy, desolate planet. After discovering an ability to jump hundreds of feet in the air, he runs into a tribe of many-limbed creatures known as the Tharks. John eventually makes peace with the amiable creatures. But trouble is brewing. Upon encountering a lithe, red-skinned princess – the sort that used to adorn Whitesnake LP covers – our hero gets drawn into another violent civil war.

Making his first steps towards live-action, Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemoand WALL-E, delivers a competent, mildly spectacular adventure in applied baloney. The mythology of the red planet (yes, we are on Mars) is so tediously arcane as to defy any effective summary. Honouring his commitment to appear in three films a week, Mark Strong shows up as one of three shape-shifting magi who have the power to manipulate all events on the planet. The warring tribes shoulder names that could comfortably be attached to patent haemorrhoid medicines: the Zodangans, the Heliumites. The default uniform for all humanoids is a class of hip-hop beachwear.

If staged less extravagantly and trimmed by half an hour, John Carterwould work perfectly well as time-killing, straight-to-DVD pulp. None of the principal actors does anything you wouldn’t expect to see done equally well by a refugee from daytime soap opera. Kitsch is blandly charming as the hero. Lynn Collins mines her inner Raquel Welch as the rebellious Princess Dejah Thoris. Luminaries such as Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton provide voices (and some movement) for members of the Thark aristocracy.

But this is not some knocked-off space filler. In development since the 12th century, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the film sets itself out as the first blockbuster of 2012. In those terms, John Carter seems like very pallid stuff. The special effects are too familiar. Everything is shot in the same boring shades of yellow and ochre. The political and religious subplots could not be less interesting if they were explained in a title roll at the beginning of a Star Wars prequel.

You really do have to take pity on John Carter. Once an innovator, he now seems even more ancient than his 100 years. I wouldn’t bet money on our seeing a sequel.

Visit entertainment.iefor video interviews with the cast