out of Five
Running time: 132
Beautifully designed and impressively directed, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, emotionally engaging space opera with an intelligent script, strong characters, terrific special effects and superb performances from Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins.
What's it all about?
Pixar director Andrew Stanton's (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) first foray into live-action is based on the series of fantasy novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the first written in 1912) that set the template for such future genre staples as Superman, Flash Gordon, Star Wars and so on. Taylor Kitsch stars as disillusioned American Civil War veteran John Carter, who's mysteriously transported to Mars – which the natives call Barsoom – where he's captured by a four-armed race of green-skinned, nine foot tall Tharks lead by Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe).
Carter soon learns that Barsoom is under threat, thanks to a raging war between rival tribes the Zodangans - lead by the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West), who's been given a game-changing superweapon by manipulative, all-powerful Therm (a sort of super-powered mystic) Matai Shang (Mark Strong) – and the peace-loving Heliumites, lead by King Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and his feisty daughter, scantily-clad philosopher-slash-warrior Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, Kitsch's co-star in Wolverine: Origins). Discovering that his bone density gives him super strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Carter rescues Dejah from the clutches of the Zodagans and makes a powerful enemy of Matai Shang in the process.
The performances are excellent: Kitsch and Collins have strong chemistry together and there's superb support from the likes of Strong, Hinds, Dafoe and James Purefoy, who has a scene-stealing sequence as Dejah's sworn protector, Kantos Kan. There's also good work from Daryl Sabara as Edgar Rice Burroughs in framing back-on-earth scenes that allow for the reading of Carter's journal.
As you'd expect from Pixar, the digitally animated special effects are flawless – there's not a moment of dodgy CGI in the entire film and the Barsoom landscapes are gorgeously rendered, as are details like the Zodangan's moving city or their dragonfly-like aircraft. Stanton also delivers a number of exciting set pieces, the highlights of which are a fight to the death with a pair of vicious White Apes in an arena and an almighty battle against a race of Warsoon (like Tharks but nastier).
The script is refreshingly intelligent throughout, though it's perhaps fair to say that the film could have used a nudge more comedy, Carter's adorable alien space dog notwithstanding. It's also worth noting that while technically proficient, the 3D effects don't really add anything and the film will play just as well, if not better in 2D.
John Carter is a hugely entertaining, pleasingly old fashioned space adventure that deserves its shot at the planned trilogy. Recommended.
John Carter: An IMAX 3D Experience (M)