Having been away for ten days, and largely and unusually internetless for most of it, I’ve missed much of the media’s relish in John Carter‘s disappointing performance at the box office. Completely innocent of all negative reviews, I took some time out of the madness and mayhem that is Universal Studios (Orlando) during Spring Break and went to see John Carter on the park’s IMAX screen in 3D. The fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it owes little to Disney’s awful marketing but a great deal to its style and storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s the former which may have kept potential audiences away in large numbers.
I am painfully ignorant of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom novels, the first of which introduced John Carter to the world in 1911. But their stories of Mars (Barsoom), populated by combative humanoids and giant four-armed green Martians, the Thark, have done much to influence a century of science fiction. Unfortunately, this meant that the trailer’s focusing on Avatar-esque aliens and Attack of the Clones-like stadium battles obscured this originality nicely. Changing the name from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter did little to entice those of us ignorant of Barsoom. And just look at the terrible poster.
Nevertheless, if you made it inside the cinema, I think that there’s a good chance that you would have been wonderfully lost in Burroughs’ imagination and director Andrew Stanton’s interpretation of it for a full two hours. The story is a most excellent one – John Carter is a confederate officer from Virginia who has been damaged in the American Civil War. When searching for gold in a cave, he encounters a robed stranger whose medallion transports Carter to the dry, desert planet of Barsoom. John Carter is a source of wonder to the brutal Thark because of his gravity-defying ability to leap and jump incredible distances and heights. Becoming almost the pet of their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), Carter escapes and finds himself caught in a great conflict between the humanoid cultures who are killing the planet with their war, manipulated and encouraged as they are by the mysterious and evil White Martians, led by Mark Strong. Caught in the middle is Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and it becomes John Carter’s mission to save her – although she’s more than capable of looking after herself.
This exciting and romantic adventure plays out against the most magnificent and epic backdrop – deserts, plains, canyons and mountains mix with great cities and flying ships, populated by a cast of thousands, of different species and appearance, with the lone human caught in the middle, who has caught the imagination of all because of his non-Martian power to jump.
The film looks good. The 3D is unobtrusive but enhances the depth of the landscapes and inflates the scale. Taylor Kitsch is a fine John Carter, athletic and brave, but he has work to do to live up to the cast around him. Lynn Roberts is especially good as the feisty princess while Willem Dafoe is superb as conflicted Tars. Then there is Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton and, my particular, completely biased favourite, James Purefoy.
But when all’s said and done, the stunning visual effects of John Carter are more than matched by the engrossing story, the great dramas played out between the different protagonists, the love story, and the mystery of this Virginian finding his place in a new home, so far away and so alien. The world of Barsoom comes to life here a century after its creation and I’ll be sure to go back to the original stories to discover more about John Carter and his Princess of Mars. It’s such a shame that Disney didn’t seem to realise what a jewel it had created.