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Non-Review Review: John Carter

I really enjoyed John Carter for what it was. In a way, the movie feels quite a bit like its lead character, a Confederate soldier yanked off Earth and dumped in another very strange setting. This movie feels like a seventies or eighties science-fiction epic, mercilessly plucked from the era of pulpy high-tech fantasy and transposed to a more cynical modern time. Whether or not you will enjoy John Carter will depend entirely on your taste for big-budget science-fiction epics. Those who favour a wry and self-aware approach to their wild interplanetary adventures will likely go home unsatisfied. However, those who can embrace an earnest and straight-faced adaptation of a science-fiction classic will find much to enjoy. You can guess which camp I fell into, even if I could acknowledge the movie’s significant shortcomings.

Warlord of Mars...

Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs over a century ago, it’s impossible for John Carter to feel like anything other than a relic. The character and his fictional world have inspired literally generations of pulp fiction, to the point where viewers will easily spot references and homages – in many cases spotting references in reverse. After all, it was John Carter’s super strength in an alien atmosphere that inspired the idea that the alien Superman could “leap buildings in a single bound.” His astral projection and allegiance with the native tribes against militaristic aggressors heavily influenced James Cameron’s Avatar.

In fact, Andrew Stanton seems to acknowledge the influence that the author had on George Lucas. It’s hard to shake the image of A New Hope’s early Tattoine scenes when John Carter wakes up in a mysterious desert world and finds himself tasked to save a princess. There’s a speeder sequence that recalls the great chase from Return of the Jedi. The much publicised arena scene calls to mind Attack of the Clones. Hell, the bad guy even suffers the same wound Lucas would inflict on his characters time and again, in a more subtle nod to a director who borrowed liberally from this science fantasy.

Stopping his confederates...

Stanton’s eye is very much focused on that period of Hollywood, and this feels a bit like a more high-tech approach to an adaptation that would have taken place towards the end of the seventies. Certainly it seems like fashion on Mars is stuck in the early eighties, with a wedding dress that wouldn’t look out of place in Barberella and a ruling court dressed like cast members of David Lynch’s Dune. Even Michael Giacchino’s score evokes John Williams, which is no mean feat.

This is an era of cinematic nostalgia, and John Carter feels like a Hollywood science-fiction epic that got lost in post-production for about thirty or forty years. That’s not an insult or a compliment, just an illustration of how the film works. There’s no sly meta-references. There’s no winking at the camera. Instead, Stanton and his cast treat the material with the utmost respect and seriousness. There are jokes and humour, of course, but they come from broad strokes comedy rather than any witty manipulation of the audience’s expectations. John Carter isn’t sly enough to figure out he’s wandered into an epic saga, and the villains aren’t any more than cardboard cutouts.

Tak to me...

The movie uses terms like “the ninth ray” and all sorts of alien jargon without any hint of a sly grin or a wily smirk. And, to be honest, that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s nice to see pulpy material like this addressed without the need to pander or to apply a large amount of cynicism. Sometimes we don’t need to see the clichés and tropes of the genres deconstructed and reconstructed, instead we are glad to see them executed with considerable grace and skill.

There are plotholes to be found everywhere. Despite being incredibly strong and able to jump great distances, Carter’s abilities seem to be as strong as the plot demands. Sometimes he can leap entire cities, other times a small chain holds him in place. Sometimes he can kill a man with a single blow, and other he can’t fight off a weakened and malnourished attacker. His ability to adapt to an alien world (controlling his strength, flying an alien craft) also tend to come and go depending on how the particular scene needs to play out. But there’s a cheesy charm to all this. After all, it’s hard to imagine any science-fiction or fantasy epics that don’t feature some weak links in their internal logic.

Lighten up, John...

And then there’s the actors involved. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are remarkably wooden. Their primary function appears to be to look pretty – Kitsch is frequently chained and shirtless, while Collins manages to slink into the most revealing wedding dress I’ve ever seen. (Bonus points for a Freudian reference, by the by, I consider that to be another Star Wars reference, along with the family-friendly “dismembering” of the bad guy for good measure.) However, I think it works quite well in the context of the film. The pair lend the movie a solid B-movie quality, with Collins’ ridiculous British accent and Kitsch’s capacity to emphasise every word in a sentence. I don’t think that, for example, Star Wars worked because Mark Hamill was an amazing talent. (I think he improved dramatically as the series went along and in his later career.)

It’s the supporting cast who really make the difference though, and they all seem to relish the chance to star in such a wonderfully old-fashioned epic space yarn. Willem Dafoe is, as ever, brilliant. Even voicing a CGI alien, he manages to infuse his character with a warm humanity. In contrast, Samantha Morten manages to give us the most alien member of the cast, in a subtle and subdued performance. Dominic West has great fun as a bombastic bad guy, chewing on the scenery like it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. His character is woefully underwritten, but it’s hard to resist West’s energy.

Does anybody "get" Carter?

Listen here, Princess...

Similarly, Mark Strong channels his wonderful sinister charm into an ethereal bad guy who seems to exist to provide exposition. All these characters are standard plot devices, but they’re rendered fantastic life by a superb cast. In a way, I think it’s a valid microcosm of the movie – it’s a fairly standard science-fiction yarn, of the kind we seldom see played straight, delivered with considerable talent, commitment and energy. If John Carter didn’t have that talent to sustain it, it would be lost.

And, to be frank, a lot of it works because the source material is solid. I think it’s reasonable to attribute the popularity of the tropes at play here to the simple fact that Edgar Rice Burroughs used them exceedingly well. John Carter is at once a biting example of colonial fiction, the story of a white man who destroys a planet’s political system, takes over their civilisation and marries their princess. At one stage, he intervenes in a local skirmish that he doesn’t understand merely because he deems that it wasn’t “fair.”

A fun shoot?

Given its age, one might forgive Burroughs for indulging the occasional colonial fantasy – the “red” Martins call to mind the “redskin” Native Americans; while portrayals of other Martian cultures seem almost to reflect how the British Empire must have looked upon its foreign subjects: primitives and apes. Law on Mars is primitive and brutal. Children are murdered in cold-blood because they fail to meet the standards set by their parents. Indeed, John Carter upsets the social structure – and wins allies – by asserting the values of the traditional family, something the aliens clearly don’t comprehend

However, Burroughs also subverts that sort of colonial thinking, albeit very delicately. John Carter’s interference in this other world is only justified when he discovers a far more cynical exploitation of the natives by a far more sinister force. He succeeds using their science and their technology, and not without their help. It might not seem so progressive now, but I found at least something endearing in Burroughs’ decision not to cast the primitive green-skinned tribes as the bad guys, but to portray the more human-looking aliens as the aggressors. None of this will seem radical to modern audiences, but I think it provides a solid basis for the film.

Going ape for it!

Stanton is a wonderful director, as his filmography demonstrates. I think his use of 3D enhances the film, which is quite a compliment. I’m not sure I’d recommend a 3D screening over a conventional 2D screening, but the film does make use of depth in crafting this alien world. It doesn’t throw things at the audience, instead using 3D to texture this surreal environment. Stanton has a gift for action, and favours old-fashioned stunt work and long shots over quick cuts and fast-paced editing. There’s no denying that the film looks absolutely beautiful.

That said, Mars does look pretty pedestrian, which gets to the heart of the biggest flaw with the film. Burroughs may have done it first, but his army of imitators did it better. Superman eventually stopped leaping over tall buildings, and instead learned to fly. George Lucas brought us to the desert planet of Tatooine, but then took us on a guided tour of the whole universe. Mars looks lovely, but it never really looks like anything other than a giant desert, and we can see plenty of those on our own planet. That’s the problem at the heart of the film, and I think that the movie works infinitely better in context, with that sense of history enshrined.

It floated my boat...

That said, I liked it, being mindful of its many flaws. I think the fact that it feels so strangely old-fashioned actually works in its favour. I feels like a throwback, which is no small irony for a story that was well ahead of its time. Stanton is a director with considerable skill, and he’s brought together some fantastic talent to help him tell a story that clearly meant a lot to him. John Carter isn’t going to be for everyone, but I think that it will resonate with those willing to engage with a less cynical type of blockbuster. That’s the thing about John Carter, it wears its heart on its sleeve. It might seem a little cheesy or overly-earnest, but it’s also passionate and engaged with the story its trying to tell. And I think that carries it quite a distance.

11 Responses

  1. I’m definitely checking it out this weekend. Fine review. Thanks, Darren.

    • What did you think?

      • I have to say I did enjoy the film. It’s far from a perfect film, but I found I got caught up with it. I wonder if a director’s cut will ever come to DVD/BD?

      • Hopefully. I reckon Disney might “Watchman” it up a notch with lots of different and expensive editions to try to make a bit back. Though I think an extended edition of a relatively lengthy movie will be a tough sell to general audiences.

  2. I can’t wait to watch the John Carter movie, this film looks like a very good storyline and a new genre (I just found out that this film comes from the novel after reading from the web). Could this film be able to compete with Avatar?

    I hear this film in its production cost is high enough. I hope this film can eventually enter the ranks of the box office!

  3. Edgar Rice Burroughs was never one to worry about plot holes. I’ve read a lot of his work and he’s a total “fly by his gut” sort of writer, sometimes knocking it out of the part and sometimes being terrible. He’s always fun though and you tend to relate to his characters. It’ll be fun to see how the movie fares at capturing his story essence. The guy with all the ideas tend not to be as popular as the ones who run with them. Great review, very balanced. Cheers.

    • Thanks, glad you liked it. I really did like it, despite (or perhaps even because of) its flaws. It has a very classic sci-fi feel to it.

  4. Its dazzling performance of every actor

    • Hmmm. I saw the movie and I have to disagree with you at least in part. I didn’t think Carter’s abilities came and went with what was needed in the scene. As you can see by my comment above I read your review before seeing the movie. Perhaps another viewing would help you see that the story backed up whatever happened in each scene. (For example, the chain didn’t hold him he broke it with ease.)

      I did think this movie rocked! Perhaps the best blockbuster of the year to my mind. It wasn’t old fashioned so much as a timeless story-line much like Star Wars. People today tend to call timeless story-lines traditional or old-fashioned because Lucas made one so popular but I feel like it’s just not right and a label people use to contrast post and pre SW. You did write your review with more perspective than other bloggers I read which I really appreciate! It’s sad so many made a bomb of this movie when it really is very good and Disney did everything right. (Most especially sticking with the source material!!) Cheers!

      • Yes, the chain broke easily at one point, but then he was in the dungeon and the arena and the chain didn’t break. He could pull it from rock in arlier scenes, why not in those scenes? It’s not a problem, mind you, I actually thought it was affectionately pulpy. I think that sort of thing added to my enjoyment.

        And I’m glad you liked it.

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