John Carter is the latest big blockbuster release from Disney. Directed by Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame it attempts to adapt the legendary Edgar Rice Burrough's novel The Princess of Mars. The Princess of Mars and all subsequent John Carter novels have helped shape the cultural impact of science-fiction and without this series there would be no Star Wars or Avatar. All of these owe a huge debt to the John Carter series, and themes, characters and stories can be found to overlap between them and the big hitting science-fiction-fantasy films of the last four decades.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an American colonial war hero-turned prospector who is searching for a cave of gold. After escaping capture by the military he stumbles upon the cave and after a brief scuffle with a mysterious man finds himself projected onto a planet called Barsoom (Mars). When on Barsoom he has superhuman strength, speed and jumping abilities, which draw the attention of Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and Sab Than (Dominic West) all leaders of factions involved in a civil war. John Carter must do what he failed to do on Earth and pick the right side in the conflict while avoiding the dastardly plans of the mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
John Carter represents Andrew Stanton's first foray into directing live action, being that he's been a supremo at Pixar for years. Originally earmarked for Jon Favreau (who has a cameo in the film as a Thark bookie), it was a gamble for Disney to put him in charge of such a big film, both in terms of narrative and setting. Visually, they've clearly made the right choice. It's stunning sandy vistas and incredibly detailed airships and alien creatures rival anything Pixar have created and highlight just how good he is at such wild leaps of imagination. From the very start you have a fantastic sense of exactly where you are, and everything seems to make sense from a visual point of view, which is something you'd expect from someone involved in Toy Story and Finding Nemo.
If only he'd taken as much time on the dialogue and sprawling storyline then John Carter would have become an instant classic. Sadly, even with the fine cast doing the best they can pronouncing the weird and wonderful place names, and race types it all feels a bit hokey and overplayed. None of the cast actually put a foot wrong in terms of acting, with Kitsch proving himself more than worthy of the leading role of John Carter. However, the story is so long and detailed that an editor that removed 20 minutes of the running time would've created a far less messy final product.
But even the length can be forgiven if the action was up to par, but just as the action gets rolling Stanton pulls his punches, leaving the audience wondering what happened to the climatic final battle. Instead of increasing the speed and adrenaline, he slows down and even at points stop, always sacrificing action in favour of exposition. This leaves John Carter as a beautiful missed opportunity. It could have taken it's place among the Avatar's and the Star Wars, but instead remains a somewhat forgettable science fiction action adventure. There will no doubt be sequels judging by early box office receipts and hopefully Andrew Stanton lets John Carter of Mars off his leash.
Rating: * * 1/2
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