Last night I watched Andrew Stanton’s live action directorial debut, John Carter, an epic sci-fi movie set on the planet Barsoom or, as we know it, Mars. Stanton is best known for writing and directing Wall-E, an animated sci-fi and one of the bravest and most beautiful movies to ever come out of Pixar (for a start, most of the film is silent). Given this cinematic CV, and the fact that the movie itself was attached to a number of different directors (including Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau) before Stanton took the reigns, I had no idea what to expect.
First of all, I saw John Carter in 3D at the BFI IMAX, which, at five storeys high, is the largest screen in Britain. The BFI IMAX can turn any epic movie with sweeping panoramas into a mind-blowing experience (I genuinely felt like I was in space watching the Star Trek movie there) so, for me, there was no other place to see John Carter and this really paid off, especially during the river scenes and the establishing shots of the Martian city Helium. (As you can see I was in seat D23, which, although a bit too close to the screen, is clearly a sign that I need to attend the next D23 Disney expo, especially since John Carter had its world premiere at D23 2011).
The movie is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars and introduces a number of characters, races and factions in a short space of time, often in Martian (seriously: Burroughs came up with an entire language for Barsoom and the characters regularly drop it into their dialogue) which can make it a bit hard to follow at times if you haven’t previously read the book (although I am fully prepared to say that this might just be me since I also spent most of The Dark Knight wondering what the hell was going on and as far as I’m aware there was no Martian in that).
Despite my not always following the story, the characters were delightful, particularly Woolah, the alien dog pictured above with Carter (but then as Stanton has said: “Everybody wants a Woolah. I wanted a Woolah the minute I read the book.”) The cast, largely made up of solid but not necessarily famous British actors, and led by relative unknowns Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and Lynne Collins (Dejah Thoris, the eponymous Princess of Mars), were a brave choice for a movie on this scale but an excellent one. Kitsch, especially, was understated and believable (and hot) as the Civil War vet who finds himself transported to another planet.
As to be expected from a Pixar director, especially one who wrote and directed Wall-E, this isn’t just a mindless action adventure but one with brains and heart, epitomised by one particular fight scene interspersed with some very un-Disney flashbacks to a defining traumatic moment in John Carter’s pre-Martian life. There are also some brilliant comic moments as well as the prerequisite (but ultimately valid) anti-war sentiments and some fun gothic elements. The CG is excellent, even in 3D and on a screen five storeys high. Even the weirdest characters looked believable but, as Stanton himself would no doubt say, this is as much to do with the people in front of the cameras (Willem Defoe apparently acted out his part on stilts in the Utah desert) as the artists behind the computers.
John Carter is a thoroughly enjoyable and well made movie but its biggest problem – and one that could, frustratingly, prevent a sequel – will be audience perception. On the one hand it’s an action adventure but from Disney. On the other, it’s a Disney movie but with a 12A/PG13 rating (not necessarily warranted but there are a few dark scenes). Moreover the story itself begins in nineteenth century America before moving to a futuristic Mars with tangible Ancient Roman elements. Whilst this makes for a rich and exciting 132 minutes, it also makes for a difficult movie to market, and one not helped by the fact that Wrath of the Titans, which is out at the end of March, has decided on a near-identical poster (see the two side by side, above). Despite this, I remain hopeful that, like John Carter himself, audiences will also find their way back to Barsoom in the near future. This movie deserves at least that.
John Carter is in cinemas now.
To hear Andrew Stanton talk about the making of John Carter, download this free podcast from iTunes (and listen out for my Wall-E related question at the end!)