BFI Southbank was invaded by emissaries from Mars last night, and they were remarkably pretty and polite. Shades of Caruso has said it before and it’ll say it again for new readers; seeing famous people in the flesh never gets old, and when that line-up includes Willem Dafoe and international megastar Taylor “Riggins” Kitsch himself, the levels of pre-movie excitement were almost unbearable. It’s enough to make one forgive the cinema for projecting John Carter as badly as it did, or to at least think there was something wrong with the deluxe 3D glasses provided. Nevertheless, during a very entertaining post-screening Q&A hosted by Garth Jennings, director Andrew Stanton pointed out that the projection was haywire. Considering how often this happens during the London Film Festival, this is no surprise.
That picture there is obviously incredibly indistinct (how anyone can make a movie with an iPhone’s crummy little camera is beyond me), but for clarity’s sake, the line-up shows Andrew Stanton, producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, James Purefoy (Kantor Kan), Samantha Morton (Sola), a blurred Dominic West (Sab Than), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris) and Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, obvs). Why am I telling you this? Because one of the most distressing tweets I read last night (from friend-of-the-blog and pop-culture expert @stayfrostymw) concerned how she was unaware that the movie had this cast (not to mention Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Thomas Haden Church and Ciarán Hinds). This is how poorly this movie has been promoted; one of the best casts of the year has not been exploited properly. Madness.
You’d think that with cinema currently embracing nostalgia in the face of modernity that Disney’s John Carter would be an enticing prospect for audiences, and one that could benefit from being tied in with this trend, but then you look at the slow pick-up in US box office for The Artist, the disappointing take for Hugo, and audience discomfort for such palpably old-fashioned confections as The Tourist (a big hit internationally but a fumble in the States), and you have to wonder if the considerable bad reputation of the yet-to-be-released John Carter is down to the bad promotional campaign and intensely, frighteningly stupid and panicky namechange, or just that American audiences don’t particularly want to look back right now.
Filmmakers seem to be eager to harken back to a time before movies were soiled by… well, whatever the hell they’re supposed to be soiled by; pick your poison from 3D, CGI, rapid editing, digital photography etc. etc. However that doesn’t match up with what the cinema-going public wants to see. The Transformers franchise is treated as the cancer that will devour Hollywood, but if that’s what people want, for better or worse, that’s just the way it is, and hating audiences for that gets us nowhere. We can merely hope that obscenely expensive “blockbusters” are made with a modicum of intelligence and passion; “big dumb summer movies” aren’t contractually obligated to have the word “dumb” in there.
These films can be done right. They can be big and human and crazy and grounded all at the same time. Cinema will always be a mixture of the intimate and “independent”, and the monolithic and numbing and corporate. If we’re going to go big, and make something on a scale that justifies attendance of public screenings on vast screens instead of waiting for Netflix to stream it in a year’s time, then we need the Epic to continue as a genre, and we need to pray to the Gods of cinema (John Ford, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton and Ingmar Bergman) for the vegetables of intelligence to go with the steak of populism. And by God, John Carter is that fully balanced meal.
For those who have yet to hear the premise of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books (and certainly the woeful promotional campaign gives little sense of what it’s about), John Carter is a war-wearied and heartbroken Civil War veteran trying to make a living prospecting for gold in the unruly West, attempting to escape his past and the fighting that brought him nothing but misery. Through various mechanisms (underexplored in the books but here forming a central plank of the narrative), he finds himself on Mars, or Barsoom as it is known to its natives, where he is feted as a warrior with incredible powers caused by his superior earth-borne strength. He encounters incredible creatures, warring tribes, sinister supernatural forces, and the love of his life, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. As his story progresses he unites Mars, beats back the forces attempting to profit from the destruction of Mars, and gets the “girl”.
Whereas the ad campaign seems to have created the impression that the movie is some kind of baffling feature-length montage about a weedy Victorian gentleman pretending to be Conan the Barbarian or something, with a tidal wave of CGI that makes the dunder-headed and empty likes of Stephen Sommers’ filmography look like a Dogme festival. It’s really quite simple to promote, even if you’re not giving the full picture of this surprisingly complex but tightly plotted success. Just say this: “You know Star Wars and Flash Gordon and all those movies you loved when you were a kid? The daddy of those movies is back now, and he’s pissed at his kids for making him seem like an out-of-touch fossil.”
It might not be as camp as the beloved Mike Hodges / Lorenzo Semple Jr. Flash Gordon, or as concerned with trade disagreements and Macchiavellian politics as the Star Wars prequels, but John Carter is better made, smarter, funnier, and convincing than any of those movies. The most important factor in the considerable success of this lovable adventure is the enthusiasm and imagination of director Andrew Stanton and his collaborators Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (yes, that Michael Chabon). They obviously adore Burroughs’ flight of fantasy, which reads like the out-of-control imagination-blurts of the smartest teenager ever to sit in front of a notebook with a fountainpen.
SoC has only read A Princess of Mars, but the mad gallop of invention was enough for about ten books. Here’s the impression given on first reading: Carter arrives on Barsoom (the native name for Mars) and meets and befriends the Tharks, fights against the Warhoon, woos Dejah Thoris, fights against white apes, resolves the familial troubles of his Thark friends Tars Tarkas and Sola, teaches their race how to love, fights the Zodangans, brokers a truce between the Tharks and the red Martians of Helium, discovers the atmosphere processor that keeps everyone on Mars alive (and learns telepathy in the process), and in the process criss-crosses Mars about 16 times. It’s a lot of fun, but coherent on a narrative level it’s not.
Stanton, Andrews and Chabon are obviously in love with this world, to the point that they manage to cram in not only the majority of this plot but also half of the second book, The Gods of Mars, which features the Barsoomian “afterlife”, the god Issus, and the creepy technologically superior Therns, who manipulate events in the universe for their own benefit. That’s a lot of event to add to a movie, but by stripping out unnecessary repetition (there’s a lot in the books) and simplifying the anthropological nature of Burroughs’ descriptions of Barsoomian culture (alluded to in the movie but dropped in favour of action and adventure), we get a pleasingly complicated movie with multiple dramatic set-ups, all with satisfying payoffs.
Part of the reason this multi-layered plot works, despite containing more exposition than a movie can usually handle, is because of the familiarity of many of the elements here; after all, they’ve influenced so many other tales over the last century, and were in turn influenced by stories told before that. The story of a mere soldier fighting for the love of a princess in a world riven by warfare and distrust is instantly recognisable, and the look of the movie harkens back to the artwork of old pulp fiction while also gleaming with modern production values.
Which is not to say the movie seems derivative. Quite the opposite, in fact. Stanton has run with the ideas presented in the novels, so on top of this familiar template he adds layers of invention and madness to make this feel utterly new. The unsettling bio-mechanical growth of the Thern’s technology, the walking city of Zodanga, the hyper-kinetic leaping of our hero as he flits around the screen with the ease of a God made flesh; the array of visual treats here is dizzying and thrilling. Stanton fills the frame with marvels, but never once does it overwhelm. It’s a world made real, as complete and convincing as James Cameron’s Pandora, but more lively, more informal. While Cameron was on a mission to prove that his new technology worked, and created a world to prove it, Stanton is running around in that playpen. His sense of joy is infectious.
So there is lightness here, and great humour, mostly from Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, and adorable sidekick Woola, though most of the main characters get a fair shake. James Purefoy’s Kantos Kan is obviously set up here as a more significant character in any sequel, as he’s given way more devilish charm than a forgettable side character should ever get. Nevertheless, there’s a dramatic heft too, and Stanton makes sure to give Carter an emotional obstacle to surmount that is far more elegant than the overly complicated relationship-delaying Martian manners subplot that keeps Carter and Thoris from consummating their love in the book.
Carter’s horrific past has tainted his soul and made him shy away from interaction with those around him, even as his naturally heroic nature keeps getting him into scrapes. We see him face his demons in the middle of the movie in a setpiece as brilliantly staged and visualised as I’ve ever seen. Some of the imagery therein, as Carter battles for the life of his beloved against the massed army of the Warhoon, took my breath away — the second time in the movie, after a bravura sequence involving Carter’s first meeting with Dejah left me agog and almost delirious with joy. In its best moments this is pure cinema, but then did anyone expect anything less from someone who could make something as elementally effective as the first half of Wall-E?
Stanton and his team of writers have also addressed the questionable politics of Burroughs’ outlook. Though it might seem churlish to complain about how Burroughs imagined his world considering it was written in such a different time, there is an unpleasant frisson when reading of how Carter brings civility and compassion to the primitive Tharks, rescuing his humanoid damsel in distress time and again as she faces enslavement or torture or even — in the most WTF-heavy passage — alien rape. Burroughs could have called it Noble Savages of Mars, to be honest, with Tars Tarkas progressing from Man Friday to Oroonoko thanks to the guidance of his white human friend. As I say, this isn’t really a dealbreaker, but it’s hard going for a handbag-clutching liberal such as myself.
John Carter the movie sees the Tharks treated a little better. The aggression of the Tharks is seemingly a clan-based matter, not a racial one, as these sympathetic creatures are compared to the utterly terrifying Warhoon, and are more accepting of Carter from the get-go. They are also convinced to join Carter’s fight against the Zodangans through reason, instead of it being a matter of our hero exploiting primitive Thark conventions to get them to kick off. It’s also telling that Stanton hints that the Tharks are in a more primitive state than the cultured and advanced humanoid Red Martians because of the interference of the evil Therns, an even more advanced race of European-esque pale villains that would make right-wing bloggers whine about their portrayal in the lib’rul meejah. They are The Man in ghostly white form, preventing the people of Barsoom from finding their feet.
This point is made lightly, however. The politics of Mars are not so heavily dictated by our own, thankfully, as turning this movie into an allegory for our own differences would ruin the tone of high adventure. The hints are there if you want to look for them but they’re embedded in the fabric of the movie in a way that certainly wasn’t the case for his sledgehammer-subtle Wall-E. I managed not to chortle during the Q&A that followed the BFI premiere when the utterly charming Stanton said that he didn’t like to make such points too obvious, considering the brazen agenda of his lovely Pixar sci-fi epic. I’m not saying I have a problem with it (again: I’m liberal), but that was not a subtle movie. In comparison, the comments in John Carter about how the advance of the walking city Zodanga is despoiling the Martian landscape are like feathers in the wind.
The portrayal of Dejah Thoris and the women of Barsoom is more subtle still, though pointed enough to warrant comment. The guards and aircraft pilots are female, which is treated matter-of-factly; Mars has much to teach us humans. The Dejah Thoris of Burrough’s books is strong enough to be a precursor of certain beloved women of fantasy and sci-fi, but is never really an agent in her future, tending to fall into trouble to be protected by John Carter. The Dejah Thoris so memorably personified by Lynn Collins, on the other hand, is a pioneering scientist and brave warrior who benefits from the help of John Carter but could probably survive without him. She saves his life at times, and their love comes from mutual respect, not servitude.
In fact, their meeting is caused not by happenstance, as are the majority of events in Burroughs’ books, but by her hasty departure from Helium after her father offers her up as a wife to evil Zadongan ruler (and Thern puppet) Sab Than; agency at last. Marriage to the odious oppressor would curtail her scientific research into the ninth-ray technology that would allow her race to save the planet from ecological meltdown, and so she flees for the sake of everyone — a rare instance of flight in a fictional work being borne of conviction, not cowardice.
Her imminent capture is foiled by John Carter but she ends up protecting him as much as he looks after her, and for much of the movie her dire fate at the hands of Sab Than and Thern leader Matai Shang is only a problem for her as she wrestles with the possibility that the easy route — marriage and an end to hostilities — is preferable to resistance, war, and the slim chance that she might be able to save Barsoom through her research. How rare to see a film give the female lead that much respect and responsibility.
And this is why I’m writing this, and tweeting about it every few minutes, and directly imploring the sci-fi and fantasy fans I know to see this movie on its opening weekend. The response I got after last night’s flurry of excited tweets was a mixture of disdain and concern that maybe I fell on my head and was imagining that Willem Dafoe was sitting three rows behind me (he totally was, you guys!). No one could believe it, which surprised me as I thought there had been a change in the tide, with critics coming out via Twitter to say they had a great time. But no. Apparently the consensus on John Carter that it’s a huge failure, an inevitable bomb, a warning to all studios to abandon waste and ambition and hubris, so that we never see another movie like John Carter again.
To which I say FUCK THAT. We need John Carter more now than ever. Yes, it’s too expensive. Yes, it seems a bit anachronistic. Yes, it’s naive to think that an audience would embrace something like this when there’s going to be another G.I. Joe movie this summer and that’s what the kids want nowadays. But goddamn it, I’ve seen enough good movies falter because of early negative reports or the gleeful malicious gossip of those who revel in the failure of expensive movies, not to mention the mindset displayed last night when numerous concern-troll questions were asked of Stanton, basically egging him on to decry the overuse of CGI and the pressure placed on him to post-convert the movie into 3D. He was a gentleman about it, of course.
Guys, the money is spent now, and the failure of John Carter will not put off studios from making big movies. They’ll just make them quicker and more generic, they’ll take less time to get it right, and they’ll ignore the input of smart filmmakers like Stanton in favour of committee thinking that removes any spark of imagination or joy. Damning John Carter before seeing it, or stating that it’s an inevitable failure prior to release, does nothing to improve cinema. It deters audiences from discovering it when right now it needs all the cheerleaders it can get to mitigate the dire promotional campaign.
This is a movie that has the chance to fire the imagination of millions of future moviegoers and filmmakers, to become the culture-enhancing hit of the year. We could all benefit from its success, and to deny it a chance is tantamount to spiteful vandalism. Sure, if you don’t like it that’s fair enough, criticise away. But if you’re just firing arrows at it because you enjoy shooting at things, then the only thing you’ll hit is your own foot. So I implore everyone who reads this; if you like high adventure, and are interested in seeing something light and fun and vibrant and imaginative, something with spectacular vistas and sumptuous design, a sense of romance and vision, something with remarkable characters played with total conviction by great actors, fantastic creatures and dazzling concepts and an epic sweep, you need to see John Carter. Please give it a chance.