There seems to be a lot of discussion about how well John Carter will perform at the box office. There’s concern that it might not connect with a big enough audience to justify its reported $250 million budget. Could Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch carry a tent-pole blockbuster? It’s based on the much-loved and extensive series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, so could it appease fanboys and still appeal to the mainstream? There’s even been a last minute title change.
John Carter is a reluctant Civil War hero who is transported to Mars. He’s taken in by an alien tribe led by Tars Tarkis (Willem Dafoe), and learns that a civil war is raging between the two humanoid civilisations of the planet. The brutish Sab Than (Dominic West) has set his eye on crushing his peaceful enemy and marrying their princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Will Carter stick to his selfish plan to return to Earth, or will he help the beautiful princess?
Having never read the books, we only knew John Carter by reputation. Watching it, however, it’s striking to see how influential the series has been on science fiction over the years. The basic story may be a little familiar but director Andrew Stanton (making his live action debut after Finding Nemo and Wall:E) is committed to bringing the world of the books to life.
For a start, it looks stunning. The architecture and landscape are astounding, the battles are impressive, and the motion capture/live action blend is seamless. There’s also a very solid leading performance from Kitsch, who makes the grudging hero bit work for him (the character’s similarity to Han Solo wasn’t the only thing that made us think of Star Wars while we were watching it). He’s ably backed up by Collins, faring much better here than she did in Wolverine, who makes Dejah more than a match for Carter. The quality of the supporting cast is impressive, including Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston, Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, and Thomas Haden Church. The best of the bunch is Dafoe, who has a lot of fun with his role as the proud Martian warrior Tars.
And fun is thankfully something that Stanton did not forget. For a film that leaves its action set-pieces until quite some way into the proceedings, the need for a sense of excitement and adventure is crucial and it’s a relief to report that it is there. John Carter is not perfect. It is a bit slow at times, there’s not nearly enough villainy (it’s mostly Strong telling West to have patience), and it could be a little more evenly weighted between the first and second halves. But John Carter takes itself seriously, it takes its time, and it does not talk down to its audience, which is presumably why they’re worried about it. But it’s refreshing to see such a big movie which refuses to be condescending.
To be fair, it might not be for everyone. But we think it won’t just be genre fans that will be able to enjoy this ambitious and entertaining film. Highly enjoyable.