Picture this, if you will: A man is transported across vast tracts of space and/or time to an unfamiliar landscape. He falls in love with an exotic princess, fights monsters, overthrows the local warlord, and makes a new life in a land not his own.
It’s a common enough story outline – one, I suspect, that has its roots go back a very long way, when a man could carve out a kingdom for himself in a distant land. However, as the terra incognita of our world slowly gave way to maps and explorers, fictional heroes found themselves being fired into an entirely different unknown: space. This is the set up for countless science fiction stories; it’s the underpinning of many a fictional hero – Flash Gordon, Adam Strange, and Buck Rogers, to name but three of the more famous ones (I could argue Superman belongs in that list too!) – and the romantic, swashbuckling appeal has proved its ability to speak to audiences time and again.
So, that being the case, why did 2012’s John Carter fare so poorly?
John Carter has a rating of 51% on Rotten Tomatoes – not dreadful, but a long way from what I’d argue it deserves. There are critics that claim it’s ‘bloated’, ‘messy’ and ‘overlong’. I simply don’t agree. (In any case, how the hell did Dark Knight Rises get 88%? It’s definitely all three of these things, and utterly fails to capitalise on the two stellar films that preceded it). Other critics insist that the story’s ‘too complicated’. I’m going to call bullshit on this too, if only because it seems to be one of two go-to arguments for critics who don’t like the genre film they’re watching – the other one being ‘it’s all action, no plot’.
But enough bitching about the opinions of others, I’m here to tell you why John Carter’s a film you should watch, if you haven’t already. But let’s get one thing out of the way first. Of Edgar Rice-Burroughs’ series, I’ve only read Princess of Mars, and only then after watching the film. I’m well aware that huge liberties have been taken with the original stories, but I’m not going to go into that in any detail – my lack of knowledge makes that a fairly pointless exercise.
It’s funny. Okay, I don’t mean laugh-out-loud hilarious, but John Carter’s not afraid to laugh at itself. Moreover, there are plenty of little nudges and nods of character interaction that raise smiles, such as the tharks misunderstanding what Carter’s name actually is, and everything that Woola does (I’m damned if that CGI six-legged dog doesn’t steal every scene he’s in). Of course, all of this would be for nothing if not for the fact that…
Added to this are solid supporting roles from Samantha Morton and Bryan Cranston. My favourite, however, has to be the always-watchable Jame Purefoy (seen in leading roles in the iffy Ironclad and the surprisingly watchable Solomon Kane) as Kantos Kan. He mostly bobs around in the background, but has one fantastic scene which proves his talent beyond all doubt.
Dejah Thoris is far from helpless. John Carter was always going to be a film centred around the plight of a damsel-in-distress, but the film manages to get away from that ancient trope. Dejah is clever, technically minded, handy in a fight, and shows more backbone than the rest of Helium put together.
Yes, Carter is called upon to rescue Dejah several times over the course of the story, but there are some clever inversions where she proves that she’s just as capable in a scrap than Carter is (perhaps moreso, if it weren’t for his gravity-born powers). Moreover, it’s Dejah’s desires and struggles that drive the early plot far more than those any other character’s, including Carter’s. I’m not saying that the filmmakers couldn’t have gone further, but it’s light years better than many films as far as gender-equality goes.
(While we’re on the subject, next time you watch John Carter, take a close look at the composition of the Helium and Zodanga armies – there are a good number of women fighting alongside the men. I suspect it’s true of the thark horde as well, although it’s much harder to spot there).
The soundtrack is awesome. There’s nothing better than a good movie soundtrack, one that weaves recognisable tunes whilst never overwhelming the action on-screen. That’s the art that’s made John Williams and Hans Zimmer famous, and Michael Giacchino is rapidly proving himself ready to join their ranks. His scores for the two rebooted Star Trek films are excellent, but his work on John Carter leaves them in the dust. Big, epic themes and urgent rhythms are countered beautifully by lighter interludes, as well as that rarest of things in modern action soundtracks: moments of silence to heighten the impact of what follows.
Above all, the film’s beautiful. As might be expected in a film populated by four-armed, greenskin giants, there’s an awful lot of CGI in John Carter. This is normally a huge turn-off for me, as even the best effects often pop me right out of a film, but not here. Skyships, the thark horde, the azure glory of Helium and the creeping monster that is the city of Zodanga – they’re all presented almost flawlessly. Better yet, obvious thought has gone into the design, not just the presentation. The aforementioned skyships are almost tactile, simply because of the sounds they make when they move: the rattle of metal on metal, and the scrape and clatter of glass upon glass.
The costumes too are gorgeously designed, blending seamlessly with the world they’ve been crafted for, and instilling a sense of shared culture between the various Martian factions. I particularly love the vibrant reds and blues of Zodanga and Helium – especially when so many genre films opt to wash away all trace of colour.