Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (voted one of the worst movies ever). Mission To Mars (Rolling Stone: “DePalma has never made a dull movie. Until now.”). Red Planet (Variety: “Mission To Mars had style to burn compared to Red Planet”). Ghosts Of Mars (killed John Carpenter’s career for nine years). Doom (one of Time magazine’s 10 Worst Ever Videogame Adaps). Mars Attacks! (Budget: $100m. US box-office: $38m). Mars Needs Moms (the biggest box-office bomb of all time).
If history has taught us one lesson, it’s that if you’re going to make a movie about Mars, it had better star Arnold Schwarzenegger and a lady with three boobies. Otherwise? Forget it. So maybe the smartest thing WALL-E director Andrew Stanton has ever done was chopping the words “Of Mars” off the title of his first live-action movie.
Of course, that does leave him with a movie that sounds more like a thoughtful drama about a medical intern from ER than a $250m 3D blockbuster adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sci-fi adventure novel A Princess Of Mars.
Exactly 100 years ago, the same year he created Tarzan, Burroughs’ began publishing an 11-volume saga that’s influenced pretty much every major sci-fi storyteller since. Without John Carter (cough, of Mars), we wouldn’t have Star Wars, Star Trek or Avatar. Long before Luke came dangerously close to sleeping with his sister, before Kirk began indiscriminately humping ladies of unusual skin colour and before Jake made blue moves with Neytiri, there was an ex-Cavalry soldier called John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) who boldly went where no man had gone before to join a rebellion and fall in love a Martian warrior-princess called Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
Or should that be Deja vu? The big problem for Andrew Stanton’s big-screen blockbuster adaption is that, a century later, we do have Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar. Sadly, John Carter has come a little too late to his own party and all the other boys and girls have eaten his cake and popped his balloons.
Even the witty intro scenes in the Old West – as raggedy gold-hunter Carter busts out of military jail only to run into Native Americans – feel unavoidably like Cowboys & Aliens. Maybe it’s no accident that a pre-Iron Man Jon Favreau was initially signed to direct John Carter (he appears to have stolen at least one gag from the script). Before long, though, the cowboy is the alien, with Carter mysteriously transported to another desert world far, far away.
No sooner has he escaped heavily armed natives on the American frontier, Carter’s captured by more (literally) heavily armed natives at the final frontier. “What the hell are you?” rasps the green-skinned Thark warrior who discovers him, amusingly echoing the famous exchange between another alien hunter and a bare-chested human super-soldier.
These 10ft-tall, four-armed, tusked, Nomadic barbarians are the real triumph of Stanton’s movie, brought to life with convincing special-effects and a fully believable culture where weakness – shockingly, even from unhatched infants – isn’t tolerated. Designed and depicted in superb detail, they’re a far more fascinating race than the Na’vi and are given palpable spirit by voice-actors Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton. Carter’s adorable super-speedy Thark puppy also shows George Lucas exactly how you do a cute comedy sidekick.
In fact, Stanton and co-writer Michael Chabon (author of Wonder Boys and Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay) work hard to show us the richness of Burroughs’ parched Barsoomian planet. The strain shows, too. Things get more complex and less interesting outside the Thark’s primitive tribal realm. An enigmatic race of powerful mystics (led by the effortlessly Machiavellian Mark Strong) appear to be puppeteering Mars’ red-skinned imperial civilisation, whose courageous Princess is being forced to marry the superweapon-wielding Prince Than (Dominic West).
By now, Carter has discovered that he’s capable of Super Mario-style anti-gravity leaps (and, luckily, soft landings too) and strength greater than his size. JC, saviour of Mars, is a superman who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But outside a couple of promising battles – Carter bounces into action to single-handedly bring down Prince Than’s attack ships and join forces with the sword-swinging Dejah – Stanton’s movie comes up way too light on action.
Nothing here compares to the sustained choreography and epic carnage of Avatar and Lord Of The Rings. And again, Lucas already borrowed some of the best bits, like the gladiatorial combat against fearsome beasts (Attack Of The Clones) and the giddy speeder-bike chase (Return Of The Jedi).
Kitsch proves a handsome, forceful hero. Collins is refreshingly dynamic heroine. The former Wolverine co-stars have strong chemistry and support from a vivid cast. But adrenaline and emotion rarely throb strongly enough to propel the story, making it tough to get too excited about a John Carter franchise despite the vast world and mythology to explore.
To be fair, Stanton does wittily acknowledge he’s just made a movie about an human soldier whose body remains back on Earth while he goes Native on an alien planet – Carter gets blue blood-bath at one point. And we’ll salute any filmmaker who manages to squeeze a decapitation into a Disney movie.
Get your ass to Mars? A handsome new sci-fi adventure that feels a little too familiar. Enjoyable enough while it lasts, John Carter is big on ambition and disappointingly short on action.
Publication: Total Film