Monday, 12 March 2012

Review: John Carter

John Carter (2012)

Confederate war veteran Captain John Carter tries to drown the memories of his dead wife and child by searching for a "cave of gold" in the Arizona territories in 1868.  Ironically, he finds it when he takes refuge from a band of Apaches.  Through a mysterious amulet he finds there, he is transported to the planet Mars where he is captured by the Tharks; the green men of the dying world the natives call Barsoom.  And so begins a swashbuckling adventure for the hand of a Martian princess that will decide the fate of two worlds.

A Princess of Mars, the 1912 novel upon which John Carter is based and the original film title holds the record for a book being in Hollywood development; 79 years.  The first attempt was an aborted 1931 attempt that would have been the world's first animated film.   Unfortunately, Princess has always proven to be an incredibly difficult and expensive book to put on film.  It is an exotic tale that demands exotic locations, costumes, props, pageantry and special effects.  It also requires strict discipline on the part of both producer and director to stay faithful to the material.  On the other side of the coin, it's a story that the screenplay writer can't remain too faithful to because it's been so influential over the past century. Countless books and films have been inspired by it from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar and to simply film the book would condemn it to the fate of Judge Dredd; a film that remains faithful to a seminal work that everyone imitated, but looks old hat.

This final incarnation by Disney is like finally being able to stop holding one's breath.  It's not a great film; let's be honest about that, but it is a very good one.  The pace is very fast with only one or two slow stretches, the visuals are gorgeous, the script both takes the material seriously, so there's no winking at the camera, but it still has humour that derives from situations and characters.

Most important, John Carter doesn't fall into the trap of last year's deeply disappointing Green Lantern.  The latter felt compelled to dump every datum of mythology, back story and world building that it could until it sank under the weight of its own fanboy exposition.  John Carter only tells us what we need to know to keep the story going forward and no more.  This is a stripped down Barsoom and all the better for it.  Like Tolkien, the detail is there, but kept in the background until needed.  This keeps to story telling lean and to the point.

The design of the film is luscious, which is what Barsoom needs to be.  After all, Burroughs's Mars is a dying world populated by a people slipping into barbarism as they try to survive and it needs that feel of exotic splendour combined with dead cities, savage green hordes and super science to make it all work.

The casting is also spot on.  Taylor Kitsch plays the Captain from Virginia very well and the script gives him a tragic back story that he needs to overcome, but which doesn't cripple the original idea of the character.  Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas shows what CGI acting should be able to do, Mark Strong and Dominic West make credible villains and Jame Purefoy give refreshing light relief as Kantos Kan (glad he made it from the book).

But the biggest casting hurdle was Dejah Thoris.  The stunningly beautiful, regal, yet doughty and resourceful Princess of Mars is extremely hard to get right and very easy to get wrong, but the choice of Lynn Collins gets as close to the right note as it's possible to get in real life–or on the screen.  She provides the right blend of grit and vulnerability with an air of grown-up sexuality that Dejah must have.

The plot may be a bit confusing at first for those who know the book well, but remember that it had to be altered for the screen and that the action had to be split up into set pieces for the right impact and your patience will be rewarded.

The buzz for John Carter has been poor and many critics gave up on it even back in the earliest teasers, but here's hoping that the audiences disagree, because if the other Barsoom novels come off as well as this, we could have a franchise that makes Harry Potter look like a damp squib and is actually worth watching.

Welcome back, Carter.

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