Don't Get Carter
Just as any self-respecting parent will tell you that they love all their children equally, so all film companies will claim to be equally supportive of all the movies that they release. However, one cannot help but sometimes suspect that this is not quite the case – when, for example, a film with a $250 million budget is allowed to slink out into the world during the dog-days of the release schedule (rather than at Christmas or at the height of summer), under a title which in and of itself produces disdainful laughter from many observers, you really have to suspect that the backers have given up on recouping their investment.
I refer, of course, to Andrew Stanton's John Carter – which, in a sane world, would obviously be called John Carter of Mars, as that's the title of the book series on which it is based. Said books, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are a series of much-loved and highly influential classics of the currently rather unfashionable 'planetary romance' genre. I should point out that I haven't actually read any of them, but from what I know Stanton's film seems a reasonably faithful adaptation.
Anyway – the eponymous character, played by Taylor Kitsch, is a US civil war veteran who – as is the norm – has become rather embittered and world-weary. While prospecting for gold in Arizona in the late 1860s, a rather convoluted train of events results in him acquiring a flashy medallion which, much to his surprise, transports him to Mars.
Here he is taken captive by the Tharks, a tribe of six-limbed aliens. As an Earthman on Mars, Carter has what seem to the locals to be super-powers, and the Thark leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe, mo-capped within an inch of his life) plans to use him as a weapon against the Tharks' enemies. However, there is more afoot on the red planet (strap yourselves in, this could get bumpy): the cities of Helium and Zodanga have long been at war, and the conflict is being manipulated by Matai Shang (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong), leader of the immortal Therns. He has given Sab Than (Dominic West), prince of Zodanga, a weapon so powerful he can force the people of Helium to yield to him – and one of the conditions he has set for peace is that he marry Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of the city. Deja is not keen on this idea and makes a run for it, but the pursuing Zodangans catch up with her airship just as it is passing over the territory of the Tharks, and if there's one thing Carter finds he can't ignore it's a lady in distress…
So: the majority of this movie is set on Mars. Most of the characters are Martians. The very first word in the first line of dialogue in the first scene of the movie is 'Mars'. The title shown at the end of the picture is 'John Carter of Mars'. Why this film has been marketed and released simply as John Carter is, therefore, slightly mystifying, even after one learns the reasoning behind it. The official explanation given by Stanton is that 'girls wouldn't go to see a film called John Carter of Mars', which I'm not convinced of, but in any case I believe the spectacular tanking last year of another 3D epic with the M-word in the title was probably also an issue. Whatever: the fact this film has been released under a title so calculatedly non-descript and inoffensive suggests to me a definite lack of self-belief on the part of the makers: they don't seem to think that folk will want to see their film if they're up front about the kind of movie it is. Have they so little faith in the story? If so, why make it at all?
John Carter of Mars has not had an easy ride from proper critics, who have been queuing up to stick the boot in on its supposed shortcomings. There have been predictions that it will achieve the status of legendary flop, claims that it is one of the masterclasses of bad moviemaking that come along all too rarely these days, assertions that it is utterly without merit on any level.
Well, I have to say that it's a very long way from being perfect, but the film is not a saddening bore, either. John Carter of Mars has one main problem, which is that rather than being a God-awful small affair it is instead an almost ludicrously lavish and large-scale one. I rather suspect this film is pitching to the same audience as Avatar, but it really has far more in common with bog-standard action fantasy films from the past couple of decades, just made with a massively inflated budget.
While the specifics of the plot are often somewhat vague, something not helped by the bemusing proliferation of silly-sounding names throughout, the actual generalities of the narrative are for the most part extremely straightforward, not to mention over-familiar. We've got the action-man hero forced to rub along with a feisty princess on an epic journey – wonder how that's going to work out? We've got the leading lady being pressured into marriage under duress – is our hero going to arrive in time to save her? And so on, and so on. You would have to be totally ignorant of Prince of Persia, The Scorpion King, Attack of the Clones, Conan the Barbarian, and many others in order to find this film in any way startling or suspenseful.
It's not really helped by a structure that smacks the viewer with a hefty info-dump on Martian history and politics right at the start, and follows this up with a battle scene where it's unclear who the good and bad guys are. And after this, the meat of the film is surrounded by a lengthy and somewhat convoluted framing device featuring Edgar Rice Burroughs himself as a character. Before we even get to Mars there are some protracted wild west shenanigans. Put together all these things make considerable demands on the audience's goodwill, and when the film ultimately turns out to be not much more than a generic fantasy runaround, you can't help but feel slightly cheated.
That said, visually the film is very impressive, both in terms of the art direction and the CGI – but, as I've said before, movie-making technology has reached the level now where great visuals are the least one can expect. There are tantalising, fleeting moments of what a remarkable film this could have been had the script been less thorough-going in its conventionality: a battle scene in which Carter wreaks havoc on an astounding scale is intercut with flashbacks to the darkest moments of his life on Earth, while later on Mark Strong gets a scene in which he singlehandedly manages to hoist the film onto a higher level, where the ideas involved and the quality of his performance match the images on screen.
Apart from Strong, the performances are quite variable – Kitsch doesn't exactly distinguish himself, but he's not dreadful, and most of the rest of the cast have to contend with being mo-capped or (possibly even worse) forced to wear cod-Roman gear and henna tattoos. James Purefoy is actually rather good in a fairly small part as a character called Kantos Kan, bringing some humour and energy to it where many of his colleagues seem swamped. I find myself feeling particularly sorry for Lynn Collins, for some reason: there she is, a young actress who (once again) is hardly dreadful at her chosen craft – but she's forced to wear a variety of dodgy costumes and generally be decorative. A thankless job, I suspect – and if, as people are predicting, this film doesn't make its money back, it's not exactly going to help her career along much.
John Carter of Mars is never completely boring, never totally unintelligible, never slow, and never dull to look at – and if it could have been made for a sane budget, I suspect it would have had every chance of turning a modest profit. As it is, however, the story's just not strong or involving enough to make the film anything more than a mildly agreeable way of spending a couple of hours. The history of cinema is littered with big-budget follies, where a director grabbed the money with both hands and made something both deeply personal and wildly uncommercial. John Carter, however, is neither of those things – and neither is it bold enough or accomplished enough on any level beyond the purely mechanical to be considered any kind of a success.