John Carter

March 21st, 2012

The bulk of the pre-release talk about John Carter seemed to be about the film's commercial prospects and marketing campaign, closely followed now the film has performed only moderately well at the US box office by speculation about the distribution of blame. As a film watcher, I don't see why I should much care either way: the sums of money cited are unimaginably large by comparison with, say, the balance on my bank account, but I doubt that they're much above par for an epic, SFX-heavy, franchise-opening fantasy movie made by a major Hollywood studio. Unless Disney's finances are in much worse shape than we're led to believe, this sort of film isn't going to be a Heaven's Gate-class studio-killer. At worst, it might cause the odd studio executive to leave to set up as an independent producer or agent, while sending first-time live-action director Andrew Stanton back to Pixar. Traumatic and disappointing for the individuals concerned, but not my problem as a filmgoer.

So, what of John Carter the film? I saw it earlier today, having long been aware that Edgar Rice Burroughs had written a number of novels set on Barsoom but never having read one of them.1 Consequently, I can't speak to the film's fidelity to the original stories or even to whether it matches the tone of the original. What I can say is that it's actually a pretty fair old romp, with Taylor Kitsch managing to sell me on John Carter's mix of fighting prowess enhanced by low Martian Barsoomian gravity, his gruff charm, his sense of honour and his desire to keep his distance from all emotional attachments following the death of his family in the US Civil War. I found the CGI work to be about what we've come to expect these days; it looks just fine now, and in three years time we'll be seeing that standard of detail/motion capture/animation of crowds and battles in good quality TV work. The plot is exactly what you're expecting given the basic setup: outsider arrives in a land divided between warring peoples, gets pushed around a bit, sees a bit more of the world, comes to realise which side is deserving of his trust, and rallies his forces to make sure the bad guys' plans are thwarted. Nothing wrong with that, especially in the first film in what everyone hopes will be a new franchise. It's a formulaic plot, but that's because it's a perfectly good formula.

What makes that sort of thing work better than average is the performances, which I found ranged from perfectly OK to quite good. I knew Taylor Kitsch primarily from his performances in the TV version of Friday Night Lights2 so it was good to see him play a more active, downright swashbuckling figure here. There were all sorts of perfectly fine supporting turns, from those masked by CGI (Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Polly Walker and Thomas Haden Church) to those covered with red make-up (Dominic West, James Purefoy, Ciarán Hinds),3 but the real surprise package for me was Lynn Collins. I'd only seen Collins in her thankless role as Wolverine's doomed love interest in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but here she was handed a considerably livelier and more active character and she ran with it, giving us a clever, swashbuckling Dejah Thoris who was at least 300% more fun than the average love interest in a big budget film. Of course it did no harm that she looked the part, but a dozen actresses could have made those outfits look good. The point is that her performance made me look forward to seeing Dejah Thoris again in a sequel.

Sadly, it's not looking likely that we'll ever get the chance to see Collins and Kitsch and Dejah Thoris and John Carter again. I think Andrew Stanton and Disney probably overestimated how much audience awareness there was of the Barsoom novels, and I can certainly see why audiences seeing just the trailers might think we saw a lot of these scenes several years ago in the Star Wars prequels. The former issue probably couldn't have been overcome, but the latter is just a superficial resemblance. In any case, Burroughs got there long before George Lucas and ILM did. Neither of those factors should blind us to the fun to be had on Barsoom.

John Carter (which, infuriatingly, reverts to the title it should have had all along – John Carter of Mars – right before the end credits) isn't an all-time classic, but it's a very decent start and I'd be up to see a couple of sequels if someone can just persuade Disney to fund them.

  1. The only novel I've read featuring a character called 'Dejah Thoris' was Heinlein's The Number of the Beast.
  2. I'd seen him as Remy LeBeau in X-Men Origins: Wolverine but I wouldn't hold that against him: a dreadful, irritating character in a terrible film.
  3. Also, if you've seen the film did you spot Bryan Cranston? I didn't. I only found out after seeing the film that he was playing the US Army officer near the start who imprisons John Carter and tries to press him into service.

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