Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (voted one of the worst movies ever). Mission To Mars (Rolling Stone: “De Palma has never made a dull movie. Until now.”). Red Planet (Variety: “Mission To Mars had style to burn compared to Red Planet.”).
Ghosts Of Mars (killed John Carpenter’s career for nine years). Doom (one of Time magazine’s 10 Worst Ever Videogame Adaps). Mars Attacks! (Budget: $100m. US box-office: $38m). Mars Needs Moms (one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time).
If history has taught filmmakers one lesson, it’s that if you’re going to make a movie about Mars, it had better star Arnold Schwarzenegger and a lady with three boobies. Otherwise? Forget it. So, maybe the smartest thing WALL.E director Andrew Stanton has ever done was chopping the words “Of Mars” off the title of his first liveaction movie.
Of course, that does leave him with a movie that sounds like a dull drama about a medical intern from ER rather than an estimated $250m 3D blockbuster adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sci-fi adventure story A Princess Of Mars.
Exactly 100 years ago, the year he created Tarzan, Burroughs began publishing an 11-volume saga that’s influenced pretty much every major sci-fi storyteller since. Without John Carter (cough, of Mars), we wouldn’t have Star Wars, Star Trek or Avatar.
Long before Luke came dangerously close to sleeping with his sister, before Kirk began humping ladies of extra-terrestrial skin colour and before Jake made blue moves with Neytiri, there was an ex- Cavalry soldier called John Carter (here played by Taylor Kitsch, next seen in Battleship) who boldly went where no man had gone before to join a rebellion and fall in love with a Martian warrior-princess called Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Or should that be déjà vu?
The problem for Andrew Stanton’s blockbuster adap is that, a century later, we do have Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar. Sadly, John Carter has come a little too late to his own party and all the other boys and girls have eaten his cake and popped his balloons.
What the Thark?
Even the witty intro scenes in the Old West – as raggedy gold-hunter Carter busts out of military jail only to run into Native Americans – feel unavoidably like Cowboys & Aliens. Maybe it’s no accident that a pre-Iron Man Jon Favreau was initially signed to direct John Carter (he appears to have stolen at least one gag from the script).
Before long, though, the cowboy is the alien, with Carter mysteriously transported to another desert world far, far away. No sooner has he escaped heavily armed natives on the American frontier, Carter is captured by more (literally) heavily armed natives at the final frontier.
“What the hell are you?” rasps the green-skinned Thark warrior who discovers him, amusingly echoing the famous exchange between another alien hunter and a bare-chested human supersoldier.
These 10ft-tall, four-armed, tusked, nomadic barbarians are the real triumph of Stanton’s movie, brought to life with convincing special effects and a fully believable culture where weakness – shockingly even from unhatched infants – isn’t tolerated.
Designed and depicted in superb detail, they’re a more fascinating race than the Na’vi and given palpable spirit by voice actors Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton. Carter’s adorable super-speedy Thark puppy also shows George Lucas exactly how you do a cute comedy sidekick.
In fact, Stanton and co-writer Michael Chabon (author of Wonder Boys and Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay) work incredibly hard to show us the richness of Burroughs’ parched Barsoomian planet.
Things get more complex and, weirdly, slightly less interesting outside the Thark’s primitive tribal realm. An enigmatic race of powerful mystics (led by the effortlessly Machiavellian Mark Strong) appear to be puppeteering Mars’ red-skinned imperial civilisation, whose courageous Princess is being forced to marry the superweapon-wielding Prince Than (Dominic West).
By now, Carter has discovered that he’s capable of Super Mario-style anti-gravity leaps (and, luckily, soft landings too) and strength greater than his size. JC, saviour of Mars, is a superman who can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
But other than a couple of promising battle scenes – Carter bounces into action to single-handedly bring down Prince Than’s deadly attack ships and join forces with the swordswinging Dejah – Stanton’s movie comes up too short on action.
Nothing here compares to the sustained choreography and epic carnage of Avatar and The Lord Of The Rings. And, again, Lucas already borrowed some of the best bits, like the gladiatorial combat against fearsome beasts (Attack Of The Clones) and the speeder-bike chase (Return Of The Jedi). Kitsch proves a handsome, forceful hero, while Collins is a refreshingly dynamic heroine.
The Wolverine co-stars have strong chemistry and support from a vivid cast. But adrenaline and emotion rarely throb strongly enough to propel the story, making it tough to get particularly excited about a John Carter franchise, despite the vast world and mythology to explore.
To be fair, Stanton does wittily acknowledge he’s just made a movie about a human soldier whose body remains back on Earth while he goes native on an alien planet – Carter gets a Na’vi-blue blood bath at one point. And we’ll salute any filmmaker who manages to squeeze a decapitation into a Disney movie.
Get your ass to Mars? A handsome new sci-fi adventure that feels rather familiar. Enjoyable enough while it lasts, John Carter is big on ambition and disappointingly short on action.