John Carter film review: Lame heroes, a ghastly script and albino space wombats

A monstrous flop: lame heroes, a ghastly script.. and albino space wombats. Welcome to 2012's first mega-disaster



10:48 GMT, 9 March 2012

John Carter (12A)

Zero stars. Verdict: The giant turkey from Mars

Andrew Stanton’s two animated hits, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, gave him the right to fail — a privilege he exercises to the full with this year’s first mega-disaster, John Carter 3D.

I imagine he pitched this to Disney as ‘Star Wars meets Avatar’ — but the wildly overlong, under-involving end product is more like ‘Cowboys & Aliens collide with Fire Maidens Of Outer Space’.

And the 3D element has been added in post-production, and contributes nothing except expense and eyestrain.

Is there life on Mars Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris and Taylor Kitsch as John Carter

Is there life on Mars Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris and Taylor Kitsch as John Carter

Handsome, muscular war veteran John Carter (played by the justifiably little known and tragically well-named Taylor Kitsch) is prospecting for gold in Arizona and doing a wretched impersonation of John Wayne when he finds himself transported to a densely populated Mars – called Barsoom by its inhabitants.

Here, he encounters Tharks, 12ft-tall green aliens with tusks, who ride Thoats, huge eight-legged hamsters. The Tharks admire Mr Carter’s superpowers, or rather superpower — he’s able to jump really, really high, which makes him a cert for a couple of gold medals in any Martian Olympics.

In the absence of such a sporting event, Carter becomes reluctantly involved in a war between the human tribes of Mars. The red-skinned Heliumites are led by peace-loving King Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and his tasty daughter, a brilliant scientist turned warrior princess.

I hoped that in this era of product placement and in view of her willingness to strip, she might be called Nitro Mors, but her name turns out to be Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

The Zodangas are led by Dominic West as Sab Than, the Prince of Zodanga

The Zodangas are led by Dominic West as Sab Than, the Prince of Zodanga

The red-skins’ opponents are the cruel and devious white-skinned Zodangans, led by a snarly Dominic West as Sab Than, the Prince of Zodanga. And they are urged on by mysterious, grey-skinned bald men called Therns.

Ah yes, the Therns. These are godlike creatures led by Matai Shang (the ubiquitous Mark Strong) and a nameless sidekick, who is a dead ringer for Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

Therns can change shape at will and impersonate women (Thern Britton), and they have magical superpowers, which they hardly ever use, for reasons that escape me. So instead they employ the Zodangans to perpetrate their evil ends.

This is meant to be a tale of good versus evil, but more effort is spent on ogling the scantily clad warrior princess than clarifying the plot.

Stanton’s screenwriting skills are, on this evidence, slightly below those of George Lucas, so there’s plenty of clunky exposition and such inadvertent laugh-lines as: ‘I would lay down my life for Helium.’ My favourite is when the princess announces: ‘I am a regent at the Royal Helium Academy of Science.’

The White Apes, or albino space wombats if you prefer

The White Apes, or albino space wombats if you prefer

Some of this can be blamed on Edgar Rice Burroughs who — as well as creating Tarzan – invented the world of Barsoom in his science-fiction book of 1917, A Princess Of Mars, which had no fewer than ten sequels. Gawd help us.

Despite being hailed as a geek classic, the novel has taken a very long time to reach the screen, and it’s easy to see why. It has a ridiculously convoluted plot, lame villains and a boring, charmless hero. The film runs to 131 minutes, and feels double that.

The story’s been brought to the screen with little attempt to update it — a fatal error, as virtually every element in the book has been stolen by some science-fiction movie in the past 100 years.

Most strikingly, the hero does practically everything Daniel Craig did in Cowboys & Aliens: wake up in a desert with an amulet, discover new powers, and suffer troubling flashbacks about a dead woman he couldn’t protect.

More than 160 million was spent on the movie, and the Utah scenery and special effects are reasonably impressive. But a couple of quid should have been spent on making the plot halfway plausible — and at least a tiny bit comprehensible.

We’re meant to root for John Carter — and it’s hard not to when he’s attacked in gladiatorial combat by gigantic albino space- wombats — but he’s completely personality-free.

Far from siding with good against evil, he seems to support whichever tribe happens to have the most attractive warrior princess showing off her Barsoom.

The scale is epic and the visuals expensive, but the human element is missing, along with narrative skills and even the tiniest trace of humour.
Without these, this science fiction never stood an earthly.