Film review | John Carter – Disney add CGI muscle to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal sci-fi yarn

Before he created the iconic character of Tarzan, prolific pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs dreamed up an even more fanciful hero – John Carter, a Confederate army captain turned interplanetary warrior whose exploits form the basis of this rollicking fantasy adventure.

Played by Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch, Carter is a grief-stricken Civil War veteran who is prospecting for gold when he finds himself mysteriously transported to the planet Mars – propelled, as it were, from the world of Westerns into the realm of sci-fi.

On Barsoom, as the locals call the planet, Carter encounters no end of freaky-looking creatures – including the six-limbed, green-skinned, 15-foot tall Tharks – and discovers that the planet’s atmosphere gives him amazing agility and strength. Both of which prove handy when he finds himself in the midst of another civil war, gallantly going to the aid of lissome Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her people in their conflict with the aggressive Zodangans.

If the storyline sounds at all familiar, it’s because Hollywood filmmakers have spent decades plundering Burroughs for ideas – the blue-skinned Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar are surely descended from the Tharks and Star Wars’ Princess Leia is definitely closely related to Dejah Thoris. For viewers coming to the story afresh, however, it’s John Carter that feels derivative. Yet even if the new movie isn’t as eye-popping as Avatar, fantasy fans shouldn’t feel shortchanged.

Director Andrew Stanton – making the move to CGI-assisted live action after Pixar animation hits Finding Nemo and Wall-E – injects the hokum with a lively sense of fun and leads Kitsch and Collins pull off their far-fetched roles with gusto, nimbly supported by a raft of mostly British actors, some of them (Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy) in humanoid form and others (Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe) in motion-captured alien guise.

On general release from Friday 9th March.