On March 3rd, 2012, Mars and Earth were on their closest approach, as Earth’s faster orbit brought it between the more distant, slower Mars and overtook it on the next trip around the Sun, but that is still about 55 million miles, and for those involved in the long process of bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs tales of Barsoom to the screen, it must have felt that they have walked every step. Fortunately for them and us, the end result is well worth the effort.
In the century since the publication of the first Barsoom stories, collected in the novel A Princess of Mars which is the primary source of this film, a production was originally proposed as an animated MGM project in the 1930s, then by Disney in the 1980s, Parmount within the last decade, then back to Disney where this release was finally conceived in 2007 under director Andrew Stanton, best known for the Pixar hits Finding Nemo and WALL-E.
Stanton is the second director best known for animation to recently move to live action, following The Incredibles’ Brad Bird on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and as with that film, the emphasis here is on action.
Read from his secret journal, from an opening sequence with Taylor Kitsch’s Carter an officer of the 1st Virginia Cavalry taking unauthorised leave and running into local trouble that relives the classic western movies of the golden age of Hollywood in glorious saturated colour, the film springs across the desert landscape of the planet known to its inhabitants as Barsoom.
Mysteriously transported across space, Carter finds himself a prisoner of the four armed Tharks, who have attempted to avoid involvement in the war being waged between the other species who share their planet, but the subsequent arrival of Princess Dejah Thoris, fleeing from an arranged marriage to an enemy warlord and pursued by her suitor, draws both Carter and the Tharks into the conflict that is being driven by the beings who control the portals between the worlds.
The setting and technology may be science fiction, but the logic behind the plot is pure fantasy – gravity, for example, is apparently lower than on the Moon rather than higher – but this does not detract from the pure enjoyment of what John Carter is, which is closest in spirit and feeling to a galaxy far, far away, but more importantly a long time ago.
It is arguable whether this film is derivative of Star Wars or not; certainly it has arrived on the cinema screen thirty years later, but the tales of John Carter had already influenced George Lucas in the creation of his tales, and following the failure of the prequels to engage with audiences, here instead may be our new hope should the film reach an appreciative audience.
Technically, the realisation of the digital characters is far superior to either Clone Troopers or Gungans, and the IMAX 3D can finally approach the repeated claims of an immersive experience that has so often resulted in broken promises and headaches. Visually, the film is striking, the design of the solar powered flying machines particularly impressive, both delicate and imposing, high technology coupled with a hands-on physical control system that gives them a convincing realism, physical sets blended into digital extensions.
While there are scenes of desert passage and plot exposition that could move faster, the feeling is never so much boredom as the anticipation of wanting to arrive at the next destination, and Carter is easy company. All the performances are satisfying, and while the characters may be conceived with broad strokes, the film is not designed to be analysed for deep thematic content; more important is that their actions or motivations never seem incongruous or inserted simply to achieve the next story point.
The studio have deliberately avoided marketing John Carter as a science fiction film, even going so far as to remove Mars from the main title, though it is rightly reinstated in the end titles, and similarly the soundtrack seems influenced by Igor Stravinsky rather than the more obvious Gustav Holst, but however it is ultimately recognised or remembered, the most important immediate consideration is how welcome John Carter of Mars is.
John Carter is currently on general release and also screening in IMAX