John Carter felt the impact of the critics and box office statistics. Like a faulty space ship it made a crash landing on its opening weekend in the US and has left a crater in the UK too. The film revolves around John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Virginian and former Army Captain in the midst of the American civil war, who is mysteriously transported to Mars (known to its natives as Barsoom) whereupon he discovers he can jump great distances. With his new superpower he becomes leader of a Barsoomian civil war and falls in love with Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Given its $250m budget and wacky premise perhaps the harsh reception is justified, but for this viewer the two hours flew by – ok perhaps they jumped, not flew.
Admittedly John Carter sets itself up for a hard fall at the outset. The film’s opening scenes are troublesome at best, establishing Carter’s space dwelling antagonists Sab Than (Dominic West) and Matai Shang (Mark Strong) first, as they set out to exert inordinate power over the Barsoomian people. Following this we leap to Richmond, Virginia (the year is 1881) where John Carter’s nephew Edgar “Ned” Rice Burroughs discovers that Carter has died and been put in a mysterious mausoleum. Edgar receives a document of John Carter’s life to read and thus we skip to 1868 whereupon Carter is in Arizona and on the run from the US army (and Apache Indians). It is here, hiding in a cave, where he finds a medallion which teleports him to Mars.
We can agree that this is not the most streamlined nor logical of opening sequences – Carter himself comes into the mix too late and the date and location hopping is almost maddening. When we reach Mars the film has already left most of the audience feeling baffled and alienated. Credit to director Andrew Stanton then, when he wins us back with a gloriously comic sequence in which Carter discovers the challenges of moving in the Mars atmosphere. A small contraction or expansion of muscles means Carter can catapult himself great distances. Stanton stages a sequence that sets the silent slapstick of Buster Keaton to the surrealistic scenery of Salvador Dali.
It is this big bold fun where John Carter feels at home and the relatively straightforward middle section delivers the goods. Taylor Kitsch performs Carter with a charismatic respect to the humour of the material, while maintaining an appropriate air of cynicism and a muscular physicality. Despite his relative status as an unknown Kitsch holds it together remarkably well, taking John Carter through a number of character phases from scholar/adventurer, prospecting army deserter and Spartacus-esque gladiator. The quality of Kitsch’s performance is particularly pertinent when we realise that we are dealing with a run time of two hours and ten minutes. For the bulk of the adventure the film stays on track structurally, with a few remarkable effects-driven scenes that have a rare ecstasy to them – one involves a giant animated plateau which resembles the roots of a tree.
It is when the film reaches the end that it reminds us of its troubled beginnings. Attempting to tie up the world cavorting nature of the story leaves us just as bewildered as we were at the outset, as Stanton is not able to reorientate the film with a sequence like the anti-gravity one. In its essence John Carter is an entertaining sci-fi romp, bookended with strong doses of confusion. It seems that translating Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wacky Martian tale, which was originally written in 1911, to film form is still something of a mountainous challenge. But I am left wondering, is John Carter with its intense reliance on exposition really a story ideal for the film medium? While Stanton may not have succeeded in making the leap to sci-fi classic, at least he has created a charming anomaly like David Lynch’s Dune.