1 Star out of 5.
John Carter is one of those films that is so stultifying, so oppressive and so mysteriously and interminably long that I felt as if someone had dragged me into the kitchen of my local Greggs, and was baking my head into the centre of a colossal cube of white bread. As the film went on, the loaf around my skull grew to the size of a basketball, and then a coffee table, and then an Audi. The boring and badly acted sci-fi mashup continued inexorably, and the bready blandness pressed into my nostrils, eardrums, eye sockets and mouth. I wanted to cry for help, but in bread no one can hear you scream. Finally, I clawed the doughy, gooey, tasteless mass desperately away from my mouth and screeched: "Jesus, I'm watching a pointless film about a 1860s American civil war action hero on Mars, which the inhabitants apparently call Barsoom. I can't breathe."
It is based on a fantasy-romance serial by Edgar Rice Burroughs from 1912, A Princess of Mars, and is adapted and directed by the renowned Pixar-Disney talent Andrew Stanton, notable for having worked on animated gems such as Wall-E, Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Up. But this heavy, airless film doesn't have a fraction of the wit, fun and imagination of those films. Something in the wacky fusion of period drama and interplanetary travel multiplies the gravitational force a thousand times, dragging everything down.
Willem Dafoe, Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins and director Andrew Stanton discuss John Carter Link to this video Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter, a bone-weary civil war veteran and lone-wolf tough guy who we first see in Arizona, prospecting for gold in territory where there are Apaches. Carter fought for the Confederacy, and he is masculine, reticent and polite with the womenfolk, but a ferocious battler against those who would seek to circumscribe his liberty. And then, of all the crazy things, a golden amulet with runic occult symbols shes Carter off to Mars – that is, Barsoom.
Anyway, Carter finds that he can leap tall mountains with a single bound, but becomes captured by creatures called Tharks. They live in the shadow of two warring humanoid tribes, the evil and tyrannous Zodangans who are oppressing the Heliumites, from Helium, with whose beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) Carter is soon to fall in love.
Might it be that Barsoom has parallels with the Earthly strife that Carter has just lived through? "Let red man kill red man until only Tharks remain," says one, and it could be that Tharks are the Native Americans, and the Zodangans and the Heliumites are the civil war belligerents. But which is which? And is there any equivalent of America's slavery? No – unless you count the bondage suffered by proud Carter himself on that fierce red planet.
This film can't go 10 minutes without one of this nation's character actors striding on saying something ridiculous in a silly outfit with a straight face. Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, James Purefoy – all lend the story some exotic Brit classiness. Strong plays one of the all-powerful Therns, a sinister priestly caste of intergalactic puppet-masters, seeking to control everything that goes on. Hinds is Tardos Mors, leader of the Heliumites and West is Sab Than, of the wicked and opportunist Zodangans. Their clothes look like a mix of Roman and Aztec, sometimes with a quasi-Greek singlet, usually associated with a high priest about to sacrifice a small animal. They are also pretty keen on guyliner.
The fact that some characters are from Helium might lead you to hope that they will release some balloon animals, or at least enliven the story by speaking in a squeaky-high voice. Many of the solemn lines could well have been improved by being delivered in a gaseous nasal falsetto: "If Helium falls, so does Barsoom!"; "Will you stay and fight – for Helium?"
But this struggle is merely the backdrop to the love story between Carter and Dejah Thoris, and Carter's ability to fly means he can impress the princess by catching her in mid-air like Superman with Lois Lane, or David Copperfield with Claudia Schiffer. But Dejah, with her seen-it-all-before smirk, is not a very sympathetic heroine, and Kitsch is stolid and dull. And as for the red planet, the answer to David Bowie's famous question is no. What a sadd'ning bore it is.