Friday, 9 March 2012
John Carter Review
Plot: John Carter, a Civil war veteran, finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars (or Barsoom as it is known locally), a planet in the midst of a conflict between warring factions and in desperate need of a saviour.
Review: If the plot sounds familiar, there is a good reason for it. The story of an outsider who reveals himself as an unlikely hero and becomes the saviour of a distant planet is nothing new and was recently used as the premise for Avatar. But the irony is that novels that this new film is actually adapted from what has been a source of inspiration for most of modern science-fiction, a serie of popular books by Tarzan's writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. So it is a little unfair that the adaptation might suffer from the comparison with more recent films. And if anything, compared to the flurry of yawn-inducing, CGI heavy blockbusters we are flooded with nowadays, this latest Disney production brings in a quality that has become so rare, it is fun!
Indeed, John Carter is a throwback to a more innocent time, a time when blockbusters were above and beyond all supposed to be fun. The film has been described as a science-fiction period drama at a recent press conference and it is very accurate. It manages to blend in an old-fashioned sense of other-worldly wonders and pulpy adventures with some modern and excellent special effects which, unlike so many other blockbusters, never overshadow the narrative. It is helped by an incredible set design, which manages to give a retro sci-fi feel to it without ever looking cheap. And a constant sense of wonder pervades the whole film and never let go.
Director Andrew Stanton is the man who gave us two of the most popular Pixar films, Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Ironically for a man so accustomed to digital effects, one of his best ideas was to shun an all-CGI world, and instead shoot the majority of the exteriors in the barren and other-worldly setting of Utah, with only a slight digital touch-up to make it look more Mars-like. It gives it a sense of scope and depth that, to this day, no all-CGI film has managed to achieve yet.
Just like that other Pixar's alumni Brad Bird, who recently managed to revitalise the Mission Impossible franchise, Andrew Stanton brings in from his years in the animation powerhouse a wealth of experience, and a knack for ensuring that his competent direction serves the narrative. And for its first foray into live action, he finds himself equally at ease directing more intimist, characters driven scenes as well some spectacular action set pieces. As for the 3D, added at post-production, it is light years away from recent dreadful post-conversions such as Clash of the titans, adding depth and enhancing the experience without resorting to pop-up gimmicks.
The story is very rich, as you would expect from a film whose source material spans several books and the script does a good job of introducing what is a complex mythology. Yet if I have a minor quibble, I would say the film is almost too short, there are times when you wish it had allowed for a good twenty more minutes to expand on some of its background stories and characters. There is a huge battle scene in particular where just about everybody gets involved and you are left wondering who is fighting who and why. But this is minor. And mercifully, the film never takes itself too seriously, with a light touch which, again, is so cruelly lacking from modern blockbusters.
Taylor Kitsch is excellent in the eponymous role, and if we are going to carry on with the Avatar comparison, I would call him the anti Sam Worthington. He shone recently in the small part of Gambit in the otherwise woeful Wolverine, and here he is given the chance to showcase his vast talent. He brings in more than just his stunning good looks: his brooding and magnetic presence adds depth to a complex yet likeable character. Lynn Collins, playing the princess of Mars as well as his love interest, finds the perfect balance of femininity and strength. It has almost become a blockbuster stereotype to have a feisty heroine who can fend for herself but in here we have a character who remains feminine at all time.
There is also a great supporting cast, with a special mention for Mark Strong with infuses every one of his scenes with his commanding presence. I never grow tired of his rich and deep voice, probably the best voice of any actors living at the moment. Speaking of supporting character, the film even manages to pull off a "cute alien pet" with an adorable, faster than light sort of space bulldog (or something of the sort).
John Carter is actually a big gamble for Disney, with its gargantuan budget of $250m and there is a big question mark as to whether modern audience will be enticed by its blend of retro sci-fi. Plus film industry insiders speak of the "curse of Mars" which has seen any film set on the red planet that came after Total Recall bomb. Indeed I shiver as I recall Red Planet with Val Kilmer (a film I saw on a plane, yet I still felt like walking out). And the recent Mars Needs Mums vanished without a trace.
Yet this latest outing deserves to do well, and the world of Barsoom is certainly one I would like to revisit. It is not often that a studio takes on some risks and tries something different and I whole-heartedly recommend it. Because if you do not watch it, we are stuck with Transformers 4, 5, 6... You have been warned. And I shall end on a trivia. Did you know that John McTiernan (Die Hard) came close to adapting John Carter in the early 90's? His film had Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts attached but never took off the ground. I can only imagine what it might have been like!
John Carter US 2012. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collin, Mark Strong... Opens in the UK and US on the 9th of March.