It all comes down to preference. Critics will view a film, particularly one based on a long-standing franchise, in a certain way, fans in another. The general public will largely stay away, not willing to spend time on a property that requires knowledge of a back-story, or investment in a main character that may not be to their liking in the first place. It’s a common story that has bitten many potential money-spinners hard, and Andrew Stanton’s lush, expensive version of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books has suffered more publicly than most this year. Which is a shame. Because there’s an awful lot to enjoy.
The trouble is that it’s been tough to extricate John Carter the film from John Carter the marketing disaster*. It’s been poorly sold to a public that just saw an Avatar rip-off with bits of Star Wars. It should have been an easy sell, based on the presentation I saw earlier in the year. The truth is, Avatar and Star Wars and most filmed SF over the last hundred years owe their plot and thematic framework to the Barsoom books. That’s the hook. John Carter is the baseline, and the great thing is that for the most part, Andrew Stanton and his co-writers have succeeded in taking that ur-text and crafted something that works as a modern blockbuster.
So why the crappy reviews? Not my place to say (although I’m going to). I will put myself on record as a long-time fan of the books and their constant stream of demented invention. That makes me biased–well, I’ve never claimed to be objective. I like what I likes, and it’s clear that the stink-storm that writers like Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian dumped on the film shows that they likes what they likes as well. There’s certainly a mainstream bias against films like John Carter, that have excoriated it for minor plot fubars or a baggy second act, while forgiving dull dramas and romances that have exactly the same issues.
None of which tells you much about the film. See what I mean about how easy it is to get tangled up in the back-matter? Let’s move on.
The film has a simple, classic set-up. John Carter, American Civil War veteran, widower, broken man, is transported to a harsher environment than 19th century Arizona: the surface of Mars. Here, he has a chance to become a hero, rescue the girl and save the day. The light gravity of Mars gives him the powers of Superman, as originally envisaged by his creators Siegel and Shuster. He can leap tall buildings, if not at a single bound, than with a hop-frog vitality that puts most free-runners to shame. Along the way, he becomes allied to a tribe of savage four-armed giants, and becomes entangled in a plot to despoil the dying world of Barsoom. The tale is classic derring-do, accomplished with a great deal of flair. Along with co-writers Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews, Stanton has taken the tumbling propulsive lunacy of Burrough’s prose and crafted something with a cohesive beginning, middle and end.
Better yet, they’ve given Carter, a famously blank canvas in the books, a history and a character. Taylor Kitsch plays him like John Wayne–laconic until spurred to action. Alongside a luminous Lynn Collins as the kick-ass princess Dejah Thoris, Kitsch has solid competition from a trench of heavy hitters like Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West as the villainous Sab Than. James Purefoy as a dashing pilot is worth looking out for as well.
But the whole game is almost stolen by Tars Tarkas. The motion-captured Tharks, the noble savages of the piece, are led by Willem Dafoe. His nuanced performance comes through the nine-foot tall, green-skinned monster in a way that puts me in mind of Andy Serkis and the way he can add dignity and composure to a giant ape or a duplicitous troll. He’s funny, regal and utterly believable.
It’s an expensive-looking movie, which is just as well when you consider the vast budget. The money is up on screen, that’s for sure. Stanton and his effects team show us a civilisation in decline, a place of crumbling temples and amphitheatres, of cities carved into mountain ranges, abandoned and forgotten. Epic, widescreen stuff.
Yes, OK, there are scenes where people stand around and spout made-up words at each other. OK, it’s probably fifteen minutes too long. But these are accusations that you could throw at 90% of big budget Hollywood movies, and they don’t get the reaming that critics have given the film. In fact, that reaming may be more illusory than you think. IMDB gives it a 7/10 rating. That’s hardly the sign of a stinker.
In brief, finally, then. John Carter is a good-looking, well-acted, well-written movie with a lot of heart, and the spirit and humour of a good old-fashioned swash-buckler. It’s never boring, and contains some of the most breathtaking action sequences I’ve seen in a long while.
Now, you tell me. Does that sound like a film you’d want to go and see?
*By marketing disaster, I mean a rotten poster which didn’t seem to make it onto the Underground or bus shelters at all, and a dull trailer that the fans merrily remixed into something that gave a much truer flavour of the film.
Again. Does this look like a film you’d want to go and see?