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If you trace the history of popular science fiction back through the twentieth century you will eventually arrive at a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs known collectively as John Carter of Mars which stands as the grandfather of all of them. The series first appeared exactly one hundred years ago with A Princess of Mars and went on to influence absolutely everything from Star Wars to Avatar. If there is a sci-fi cliché chances are it started in John Carter of Mars. Now the property finally makes its big screen bow controversially minus the last two words of its own title.

The question of why the title was changed has sparked inevitable debate to accompany the incredulity of fans and the consensus is that the Disney bigwigs didn’t want the title to suggest the film was sci-fi in case it put people off. If this is the case it’s a little difficult to understand given that just three years ago a science fiction film, moreover one so heavily influenced by JC that works with an extremely similar plot became the most successful film ever made. There is another theory that reference to the red planet in a film’s title is itself a signpost to catastrophic failure, Mission to Mars, Mars Attacks! and Mars Needs Moms to name but a few. In fact just about the only really successful film set on the fourth rock from the sun was Total Recall which, tellingly, doesn’t make mention of the planet in the title.

Whatever the reason for Disney’s decision it doesn’t change the fact that this $250million budget movie isn’t raking in the cash it needs even with Pixar’s Andrew Stanton at the helm. Perhaps that has nothing to do with the title because the film that marks the centenary of one of the genre’s most important moments cannot stand as tall as some the creations it gave rise to.

John Carter is a maverick cavalryman in 1868 Virginia who avoids being pressganged into the Union Army by escaping into a cave rich in gold where he is mysteriously transported to a desert finding the place lacking some gravity. Turns out he’s on Mars or Barsoom as the warring locals call it and no sooner has he arrived than he’s again being pressganged to fight and make good use of his newfound superhuman abilities.

We’ll start with the positives, it’s a great looking movie boasting vivid and convincing production design that doesn’t overdo the details with superb use of CGI throughout from the excellently realised alien characters to the ambitious spectacle. Everything about the film convinces that it comes from a rich background of source material and that the mythology of this universe extends far beyond what appears on screen. Unfortunately the script didn’t receive anything like the same level of attention. A brief piece of back story at the opening doesn’t go nearly far enough to paint the picture of the planet necessary to invest yourself in its fiction. And that’s not the only problem.

It is said that big budget films like these need three things to succeed; big action, big special effects and a big star. John Carter manages one and a half. The effects as stated are top drawer but the action is somewhat less compelling. There’s spectacle all right but nothing on the level you’d see in something like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, meanwhile the main man is the unknown Taylor Kitsch who looks the part but isn’t as sympathetic as he needs to be. Early scenes on Earth show him as a borderline sociopathic loner whose resourcefulness isn’t enough to make him likeable as Kitsch growls his way through most scenes. He’s difficult to really care about and that’s half the battle lost right there. The rest of the cast are a bit better, Lynn Collins gives a spirited turn as Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium managing to handle both action and some outlandish lines with aplomb and looking damn good doing it while Mark Strong proving himself Hollywood’s go to villain again is on Machiavellian autopilot and still walks away with it.

But the main problem is that the complex depth of the fictional world is just too much work to penetrate. The fish out of water device is wasted and the clear exposition necessary to be able to feel satisfied by the plot is missing. The result is that it’s hard to know what the various factions are fighting about or why you should care and that’s unforgivable.

Verdict

There’s spectacle to spare but it comes at the expense of clarity and any kind of hook for emotional investment. John Carter is a mess of alien names and moderate action scenes that waste the source material’s obvious richness.

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