Bore of the worlds

This boys-own Mar­tian ad­ven­ture looks pal­lid and an­cient on screen, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

YOU HAVE TO FEEL a lit­tle sorry for John Carter of Mars. Cur­rently cel­e­brat­ing his centenary, the in­ter­ga­lac­tic guer­rilla can claim to have in­spired sev­eral en­tire in­dus­tries. Ap­pear­ing in a se­ries of cel­e­brated pulp nov­els by Edgar Rice Bur­roughs, Carter be­gat Flash Gor­don who be­gat Star Wars which be­gat Avatar (have fun fill­ing in the blanks). Yet, the odd cheapo ex­ploita­tion piece aside, the Carter sto­ries have, to date, re­sisted the ad­vances of film-mak­ers.

Over the decades such fig­ures as Robert Ro­driguez, Jon Favreau

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and Ray Har­ry­hausen have had a crack at adapt­ing the sto­ries. So, what can fi­nally have pro­pelled John Carter into cine­mas? Well, the film does con­cern a hu­man sol­dier trans­planted to an­other planet where he makes friends with enor­mously tall, op­pressed quasi-hu­manoids. Sound fa­mil­iar?

What a con­fus­ingly post-mod­ern world this is. The fin­ished en­tity feels like a rip-off of a film that ripped-off sev­eral rip-offs of Carter’s own an­cient source ma­te­rial. Even Jorge Luis Borges might have found the ac­ci­den­tal in­ter-tex­tu­al­ity a tad over­whelm­ing.

There are some good things here. The dis­tin­guished novelist Michael Chabon has, in his screen­play, re­tained a nice fram­ing de­vice that sees the young Bur­roughs in­her­it­ing a jour­nal writ­ten by his mys­te­ri­ous un­cle. We then flash back to find John Carter (for it is he) liv­ing an un­sat­is­fac­tory life in 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica. A fierce Civil War veteran, now prospect­ing for gold, Carter (Tay­lor Kitsch) finds him­self buf­feted from scruffy bar to prison cell.

This ef­fec­tively ren­dered western in­ter­lude is interrupted when the hero en­coun­ters a strange arte­fact that trans­ports him to a sandy, des­o­late planet. Af­ter dis­cov­er­ing an abil­ity to jump hun­dreds of feet in the air, he runs into a tribe of many-limbed crea­tures known as the Tharks. John even­tu­ally makes peace with the ami­able crea­tures. But trou­ble is brew­ing. Upon en­coun­ter­ing a lithe, red-skinned princess – the sort that used to adorn Whites­nake LP cov­ers – our hero gets drawn into an­other vi­o­lent civil war.

Mak­ing his first steps to­wards live-ac­tion, An­drew Stan­ton, di­rec­tor of Find­ing Nemo and WALL-E, de­liv­ers a com­pe­tent, mildly spec­tac­u­lar ad­ven­ture in ap­plied baloney. The mythol­ogy of the red planet (yes, we are on Mars) is so te­diously ar­cane as to defy any ef­fec­tive sum­mary. Hon­our­ing his com­mit­ment to ap­pear in three films a week, Mark Strong shows up as one of three shape-shift­ing magi who have the power to ma­nip­u­late all events on the planet. The war­ring tribes shoul­der names that could com­fort­ably be at­tached to patent haem­or­rhoid medicines: the Zo­dan­gans, the Heli­u­mites. The de­fault uni­form for all hu­manoids is a class of hip-hop beach­wear.

If staged less ex­trav­a­gantly and trimmed by half an hour, John Carter would work per­fectly well as time-killing, straight-to-dvd pulp. None of the prin­ci­pal ac­tors does any­thing you wouldn’t ex­pect to see done equally well by a refugee from day­time soap opera. Kitsch is blandly charm­ing as the hero. Lynn Collins mines her in­ner Raquel Welch as the re­bel­lious Princess De­jah Tho­ris. Lu­mi­nar­ies such as Willem Dafoe and Sa­man­tha Mor­ton pro­vide voices (and some move­ment) for mem­bers of the Thark aris­toc­racy.

But this is not some knocked-off space filler. In de­vel­op­ment since the 12th cen­tury, cost­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, the film sets it­self out as the first block­buster of 2012. In those terms, John Carter seems like very pal­lid stuff. The spe­cial ef­fects are too fa­mil­iar. Ev­ery­thing is shot in the same bor­ing shades of yel­low and ochre. The po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious sub­plots could not be less in­ter­est­ing if they were ex­plained in a ti­tle roll at the be­gin­ning of a Star Wars pre­quel.

You re­ally do have to take pity on John Carter. Once an in­no­va­tor, he now seems even more an­cient than his 100 years. I wouldn’t bet money on our see­ing a se­quel.

What planet are you from? Lynn Collins and Tay­lor Kitsch in John Carter

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