We'll start this review off with a small history lesson. Are you paying attention? Very good. In 1912 the great American author Edgar Rice Burroughs - most famous for his Tarzan novels - created a character whose influence can be seen in some of the most famous pieces of science fiction & fantasy from Superman to Flash Gordon to all six Star Wars films to even as recent as James Cameron's Avatar and a lesser extent Joss Whedon's tragically short lived series, Firefly.
Yet - after years of residing in the far reaches of development hell - it is only on the centenary year of the character's creation we finally see John Carter of Mars' first official cinematic blockbuster début. Which as always begs the question; can the grandfather of sci-fi adventure hold his own next the icons which it inspired, or frankly feel like dated pretender to sleeker, more advanced models?
Starring Taylor Kitsch in the title role, John Carter tells the story of a jaded American Civil War soldier who finds himself inexplicably transported to Mars (or Barsoom to its inhabitants) to find a planet, rich in diverse creatures and stunning dessert landscapes, torn by its own global war. Through a surreal odyssey of self discovery Carter discovers he has enhanced abilities on Mars - including, 'Leaping tall buildings in a single bound,' ala Superman - he never had on Earth and sets himself on his way to becoming a champion for justice for the four armed aliens the Tharks and freeing the peaceful people of Helium from the tyranny of the odious empire of Zodanga.
Kitsch gets a lot of needless stick ever since he popped up in that god-awful Wolverine film as Gambit nearly three years ago. However I've always found him quite a likeable soul and this translates well into the characterisation of John Carter. He's the perfect mix of the morally grey Han Solo weariness and Superman's golden moral compass to do something that's true and just. What he lacks in bulky presence from how I imagined Carter from Burrough's novels, he more than makes up for in a bit of class and personality.
The supporting roles were also handled surprisingly well, especially when you consider the dialogue felt like it was ripped straight from a 1950s B-Movie at times. Lynn Collins was particularly enchanting as Carter's headstrong love interest Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars herself, and even pulled off reasonably convincing English accent for a lass from Texas. Dominic West was dastardly as Sab Than the ruler of the villainous Zondanga. Mark Strong dropped back into his typecast bad guy mode as the mysterious leader of the Holy Therns to the usual desired effect.
Other notable contributions was Northern Ireland's own Ciaran Hinds as the father of Collins character, the ruler of Helium, Tardos Mors and Daryl Sabara appearing as Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. Also the brilliant Bryan Cranston makes a brief appearance the film's beginning. Everything is improved with characters from Breaking Bad. Then in true Pixar fashion the real stars of the feature were the impressive CGI characters in the form of the Tharks voiced by William Defoe and Samantha Morton and - the best thing of the whole feature - John Carter's pet alien Woola which is the cutest thing ever and runs the dog from The Artist close for star appearances from an animal...sort of...
After a string of successes for Pixar over recent years, including one of the best films of the last decade in Wall-e, director Andrew Stanton's first live action effort is every bit as wondrous as an old school 80s Spielberg film, especially in the excellent opening with Carter on the run from both Apaches and American Civil War soldiers - set next to a glorious score from the ever-rising Michael Giacchino. He should also be applauded for the way he handled the rich mythology the books contain with such narrative ease. It also works very easily as a stand alone film, while also setting up the oodles of potential sequels that can come from such a potentially mega franchise Disney could have on their hands, if they cared that wee bit more.
The set pieces were grand and spectacularly devastating in scale and the more light hearted moments (there's a few, just warning you) were just the right blend of comedy and corniness to make it a well rounded family film for all. If its guilty of anything, it's sadly the fact I can't see the film standing the test of the time like most of the iconic films that it inspired such as Star Wars (though if I'm being honest 10 minutes of this is still miles better than all three of George Lucas' prequels), Superman and Planet of the Apes. Compound that with Disney's marketing campaign for the film, which was nothing short of disgraceful, I'm seriously dubious we'll see some of the excellent sequels adapted in the near future.
John Carter's significance in the annuals of pop culture history doesn't excuse some of the clumsy flaws the film suffers. Nevertheless the film is still packed full of adventure, wonder, suspense, Spielberg-esque cheesy wholesomeness and a tonne of genuinely likeable performances from a charismatic cast. Whether that's enough to warrant further adventures from the Lord of Barsoom, only time will tell. For now though it's just enough for this blogger and while I'm here can someone tell me where I can buy a Moola?
John Carter is in cinemas everywhere now.