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John Carter (2012)
Director: Andrew Stanton

review by J.C. Hartley

When I first moved to the small market town where I currently reside, I found a second-hand bookshop, now sadly gone the way of many similar small second-hand bookshops. This emporium of previously-loved print would open on Sunday mornings and I used to break my lazy habits and get up and pay them a visit. I found a collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom titles in colourful paperback, but being something of a literary snob I convinced myself, despite never having read any Burroughs, that they weren't worth buying. I did buy some Ray Bradbury.

However, as a week passed I found myself brooding over the garish covers, the back-cover blurbs, the giant robots, and the synthetic men. This was precisely that 'sensawunda' that so many of us claim got us into the genre in the first place. Inevitably, when I paid a subsequent visit, some collector had done what I should have done and snapped them up.

The late Carl Sagan relates that early pictures from one of the Mars landers seemed to show lettering on what remained of a structure and, as a fan of Burroughs, Sagan imagined, albeit briefly, that the letters spelled out 'Barsoom'. Everyone, I imagine, knows Tarzan, or a version thereof. John Carter of Mars is probably less fixed in the public consciousness. I only know the books through reputation, and I'm a fairly enthusiastic follower of science fiction, space opera, and comic books.

Disney obviously felt that there was a potential audience; but while I suspect that Burroughs' eponymous hero has a following I also think it lies within a demographic, particularly American and of a certain age, that does not guarantee box-office gold. But surely that shouldn't matter? Can't a film fly without a ready-made core audience? Apparently not, and when the critics pitch in and savage something, audiences are ultimately going to reflect that judgement. Guess what, I liked it.

A better title might have helped. It seems that 'Mars' in a title is box-office poison but 'John Carter of Mars', given that it's a line from the film, seems to have a certain dignity and interest that 'John Carter' lacks. The trailer looked good, the cast was fine, but the public stayed away in droves; although outside the USA, box-offices, particularly in Russia, did okay, and DVD sales are positive up to press. Arguably, Disney have already made this film; it's Pocahontas with big green four-armed aliens.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, Battleship), veteran of the American Civil War turned prospector, has a run-in with local rednecks, followed rapidly by a call from the local military to act as a scout and intermediary with the local Apaches. Reluctantly involved, things go bad and Carter has to take refuge in a cave, where he encounters a strange individual, and after a scuffle finds himself transported to an alien environment. Now possessed of greater physical strength and a prodigious leaping ability, Carter is captured by the Tharks, a green-skinned, four-armed race of warriors.

Taken to their camp and initiated into their clan, Carter is crucial in the rescue of the statuesque human-like Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, Wolverine), princess of the city of Helium, fleeing from her husband-to-be, the world-conquering Sab Than (Dominic West, Centurion). Sab Than is guided by a member of the immortal race of Therns, Matai Shang (Mark Strong, Kick-Ass, Green Lantern) with his own agenda. Carter flees with Dejah Thoris, the Thark leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe, Spider-Man), and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton, Minority Report). Investigating Barsoomian mythology in an attempt to return Carter to his own world, the fugitives discover something of the intricate interplay of the worlds within the Solar system.

Up to this point, John Carter is a terrific film, as the fantastic CGI perfectly meshed with the action. From here on, the narrative becomes rather more predictable, the dialogue a little more trite, the action more referential, with chases and combats reminiscent of the various Star Wars set-pieces. And yet if the story fizzles somewhat it's still a pretty good story, the action is exciting and the performances good.

Dejah Thoris, something of a pin-up amongst a certain breed of fan (just check out the vast portfolio of images for her on the Internet), as played by Lynn Collins is not a stereotyped box-ticking feisty intelligent female lead, although she is inevitably feisty and intelligent. Not pretty-pretty, there is a refreshing physicality to her performance that gets beyond eye-candy.

If the motivation of the Therns is not at all apparent, which confuses some of the narrative, the look of Barsoom and the relationship of the indigenous races springs right from its pulp origins and that is some achievement. The poor reception to the film probably means that a projected franchise will not happen and perhaps the scope for more stories would have been at the expense of originality. But it's a good effort.

Depending on edition, DVD special features may include various making-of features, a celebration of the centenary of the books, deleted scenes, bloopers, and audio commentaries.

John Carter

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