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Martian adventures lack gravity

Published on 11 March 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs's most famous creation may be Tarzan, but his most imaginative work was in science fiction and the series of stories set on Barsoom, his name for Mars.

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I remember as a kid being enthralled by the adventures of an American civil war soldier transported to Mars where he becomes – by dint of the change of gravity – a superhero among both green and red inhabitants.

It was incredibly exciting news, then, that the first of Burrough's series was to be adapted by Andrew Stanton, whose animated Wall•E is itself a sci-fi classic. Yet there were warning signs that Stanton's first foray into live action might not be everything we'd hoped. The choice of title was perplexing: A Princess Of Mars, which was Burroughs's title, would have been infinitely more enticing than John Carter. And the title reflects a film that seems unsure of itself and its audience. It's diverting, likeable even; but likeable isn't good enough for what should have been a sci-fi epic.

The story opens in the 1880s, where the former Confederate soldier, now independently wealthy John Carter dies of a sudden heart attack. His will bequeaths everything to his nephew, one Edgar Burroughs, including a journal. And here Burroughs learns of his uncle's unlikely adventures on the Red Planet.

This actually simplifies a confusing prologue, before Carter (played by the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch) arrives on Mars and finds himself in the midst of another civil war. The rest of the film duly falls into a deep well of confusion, due to the weight of strange names and motivations – with Therns and Tharks, Heliumites and Zodangans, half animated, green and hard to distinguish; the other half of similarly well-honed British physique. Both Dominic Wells and James Purefoy have dark-haired good looks that stray towards the downright shifty; only one of them is a villain, but it takes a while to know which.

It helps that Mark Strong doesn't have hair and always, without fail, plays the villain – at least when he hovers into view we know where we are. Lynn Collins, not a familiar face but a very able actress, also gives stature to her feisty princess, who helps Carter decide which side to take. I feel the film should have been darker, more adult. It doesn't help that John Carter reminds one of other movies – Avatar, Star Wars, Dune – all of which are better.

The week features another literary Edgar, Allen Poe. The Raven stars an outrageously hammy John Cusack as Poe, who is informed by the Baltimore police that his more ghoulish hits are providing inspiration for a serial killer. Ludicrous doesn't begin to cover it.

Elsewhere, Michael Winterbottom has form with Thomas Hardy: his Jude was a traditional adaptation of Jude The Obscure, The Claim an ambitious transplant of The Mayor Of Casterbridge to the Californian Gold Rush. Trishna is of the latter ilk, turning Tess Of The D'Urbervilles into the tragic story of an Indian girl whose love affair with a wealthy heir seems like the perfect romantic escape from the gutter, but is far from it.

The adaptation has its problems, among them the awkward squeeze of Tess's good and evil suitors, Angel Clare and Alec d'Urberville into one character, and the persistent on-screen blankness of Freida Pinto. But Winterbottom shoots India with great empathy, his depiction of Trishna's rollercoaster ride providing a sumptuous and original perspective on this most enigmatic of countries.

FILMS OF THE WEEK:

John Carter (12A),

The Raven (15),

Trishna (15)

Reviewed by

Demetrios Matheou

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