I have to admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for lost causes. If there’s a film, TV programme or book that’s been widely derided, then I can’t help but try riding to its defence by attempting to salvage its reputation in some way. Such attempts are usually doomed to failure – as I found last Christmas, when my hopes of redeeming Cowboys vs Aliens ended up with my being forced to accept that said film really was as dull and listless as everyone had said it was.
I rather feared that the same would end up being true of my efforts to find good things to say about John Carter, a big-budget science fiction film that did so spectacularly badly at the box office that it’s rumoured to have lost Disney something in the region of $200m on release, and put a massive smoking crater in the middle of the Mickey Mouse company’s yearly accounts.
But I can’t help it. Surely there must be something good to say about this disaster, something positive to say about it?
Well – as it happens, there is. In fact, there’s fair amount of good things to say. And I’ll go further: I liked John Carter. Quite a lot. There, I’ve said it. Throw your stones of derision now if you want, or else hear me out for a few more paragraphs.
This film tries to be a faithful(-ish) adaptation of the 1917 source pulp novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is both admirable – being something done for love rather than for focus groups – and is also, I suspect, the principle cause of its downfall. While it’s nice to see a writer (Mark Andrews) and director (Andrew Stanton) be so loyal to a book they clearly both love, it’s also the case that the original novel simply isn’t all that good especially by modern day standards, being a florid, overwritten piece of purple prose with all the hilarious inanities of almost all pulp science fiction of its day.
Everything that was good about the Burroughs series of novels starring John Carter has been picked over and plundered for decades by subsequent writers and filmmakers, starting with the 1930s Flash Gordon serials. The concepts have become such familiar conceits to us in 2012 that they are now hoary old creaking clichés, while anything left unused which could therefore be remotely construed as fresh, original and untapped in the novels was left there for a reason – because it was already ridiculous, inane and laughable even at the time of writing. So what do the film makers try and do? Do they try and reinvent the world of John Carter from the ground up in a modern style, or do they stay true to the spirit and the detail of the novels?
They choose the latter, and suffer the box office consequences as a result. They lovingly recreate the books’ towering, multi-limbed green Martians with impeccable CGI effects, and the audience laughs – not in a good way. They include chunks of dated SF-heavy exposition about what’s going on, and the audience grows puzzled, disinterested and falls asleep. The action sequences all seem familiar from countless other big-budget films like Star Wars even when it’s they who shamelessly borrowed Burroughs ideas from this novel, and the audience is hooting with derision despite the gazillions of dollars it all cost.
Which is a shame, because having decided on their approach to the project, the makers of John Carter actually pull it off very well within their own frame of reference. If you’re willing and able to get your head into the space from which the film is coming, then after a slow and rather po-faced beginning the film will start to win you over, especially once the film itself starts to loosen up, throws off its over-attentive devotion to the books and has some proper fun with its toyset, which includes a tremendously enjoyable dog-like sidekick for Carter that does everything but suddenly pipe up: “Squirrel!”
It’s big, spectacular, and eventually becomes entirely comfortable knowing that it’s just a little dumb and silly – which ironically makes the casting of Taylor Kitsch in the title role entirely appropriate, since he seems to embody these qualities with his not-exactly-nuanced performance. As far as the acting goes, it’s Mark Strong and Dominic West as the bad guys who steal the show and provide a large quantity of the fun to be had thanks to the knowing ripeness of their performances.
Overall, a rollicking good yarn – this film took me back to some of the daft SF films of my childhood, many of them also based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ works such as The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, Warlords of Atlantis and At The Earth’s Core which all starred Doug McClure. They were incredibly easy to poke fun at even at the time, and yet were quite delightful Saturday morning matinee fun for the kids and their accommodating parents. John Carter is in the same vein and it would be a huge shame if there really is no longer any room for such cheerfully undemanding but entertaining fare in our lives as this. Yes, it’s all over-sized, absurd, frequently a bit silly – but if you’re a fan of SF pulp of a certain vintage and willing to take this in the spirit in which it was intended, then you’ll likely have a very enjoyable and fun ride if you give it half a chance. Don’t merely believe the gripes, but do engage maximum suspension of disbelief.
All that said, the film’s no masterpiece and it’s hard to give it more than three (and a half?) stars out of five given the underlying issues from the source novel. But that’s a very positive rating and I would cheerfully sit through this again any time and probably like it even more second time around. It’s a shame the film didn’t find an audience out there for the simple sort of all-action fun that it represents, doubtless not helped by an exceptionally poor marketing campaign that seemed to run scared of promoting it for what it really was – the publicity people even insisting that the original title shed its ‘of Mars’ tag for fear that science fiction would repel the punters and left it with perhaps the dullest, most anaemic blockbuster title of the year wholly unrepresentative of the contents.
The Blu-ray: it’s possible that my favourable response to this film is a reflection of just how incredibly good this looks in high resolution on Blu-ray. It really is utterly superb, with fantastic detail and clarity throughout. The CGI creatures look completely realistic, and the sun-drenched desert locations used for Mars are searingly depicted. There are some nice darker scenes as well, when Carter is on Earth in rain-soaked New England (filmed back in Old England, which is obviously where you go if you want realistic period cinematic precipitation!) Almost the only thing better than the visuals is the top-notch audio presentation via the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. It’s all top-notch. The special features are reasonable without being generous, and include an audio commentary from director Andrew Stanton, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes. However there’s a slight sense that the investment in producing extras ended abruptly once the film was a bone fide box office disaster, and Disney – understandably – pulled the plug to avoid sending even more money into the black hole.
Hopefully the home release will recoup some of this film’s losses over time. However, the chances of a sequel happening in any way, shape or form are significantly lower even than the Mars Curiosity rover finding any multi-armed green giants in residence in the next week or two.