John Carter, the first ever superhero finally makes it to the big screen

The movie adaptation of John Carter, the sci-fi epic written by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice-Burroughs, has been in the Hollywood pipeline for decades without ever quite making it onto the hallowed silver screen.

Considering how many successful versions of Tarzan have been made in that time, it does seem strange that no-one has tackled John Carter until now.

However, once this sprawling and confused film gets going, it starts to become clearer why writers and directors have managed to find reasons to avoid making the adaptation; Wall-E director Andrew Stanton here takes his first stab at live-action film-making and seems to be somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material in Rice-Burroughs’s series with important plot points glossed over in favour of more CGI aliens and battlefield action scenes.

Yes, the interaction between John Carter and the strange species he meets, as well as their fight together against the evil which threatens this parallel universe, are important parts of the story, but little of the original book remains in this effort, which owes more to Stargate than the Star Wars competitor it is trying so hard to be.

The film does have some redeeming qualities, not least of which is the characterisation of the eponymous hero. Both the writers, including Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Chabon, and the director have a good handle on just who John Carter is and newcomer Taylor Kitsch plays the reluctant freedom fighter with some aplomb; more than just a pretty face or a dab hand with a sword, he actually injects the role with some much-needed emotion in a film which is devoid of any other signs of human life.

Appropriate, in some respects, for a film which only has one human character. When Carter finds himself transported to the middle of an inter-species war on Mars – thanks to a phenomenon which is never fully explained in the film – the Civil War veteran finds himself resisting the call to arms once more.

Of course, the film would be very dull indeed if John Carter turned out to be a conscientious objector, so his sense of decency forces him to step in, time after time after time, to save some unfortunate Martian from the evil invading forces, and he eventually agrees to join their ranks. Just when the audience thinks that the film is set to take a turn for the better, it ends up heading in a very strange direction.

In the same way that the Star Wars prequels became bogged down in trade agreements, treaties, committee meetings and political debates, so John Carter becomes a seemingly endless parade of weird and wonderful alien creatures. Remembering who each one is, and how they are related to each other, takes some serious memory work and certainly distracts from the action sequences in the rest of the film.

Stanton has used motion capture for many of the alien creatures, yet in his hands the effect doesn’t seem as impressive as it has in recent films such as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” or even Andy Serkis’ early work in “Lord of the Rings”. In fact, it is far from clear that motion capture has been used at all, and the producers would probably have been able to get a similar effect, and saved a good amount of money, by using plain old CGI.

The decision to add the usual 3D post-production effects, which seems to come as standard with every big budget action film these days, is unnecessary and distracting, with many of the battle scenes rendered confusing blurs by the poor quality work. Any die-hard sci-fi fans who simply have to see the long-awaited film version of John Carter, no matter how average the final result, would be better going to see the 2D version, and enjoying the film as the director intended it.

No doubt millions of dollars went into making John Carter, and though it is obvious that big bucks have been spent, both in filming and in post-production and special effects, the end result has far less impact than many of the old Tarzan films.