It was a depressing experience to watch John Carter this weekend, not because it was a bad film, (it’s most certainly not) but because by my count, a total of 12 people turned out to watch it, and this at 8pm on a Friday evening, when you would have thought there was the potential for a good crowd. That lost potential I blame squarely on Disney, but I’ll come back to that later, what about the film?
I liked it, my wife liked it, and that’s very illuminating, because I’m extremely aware of the source material, she is almost completely unexposed to it. That implies to me that Andrew Stanton has produced a well balanced movie with broad appeal, though that’s not to say it is without flaws, the opening scenes set on Mars are a horribly stilted affair that tries to stuff an entire movies worth of back-story into 5 minutes – it’s like saying, hey, you’re too thick as an audience to work things out during the journey, (or we as filmmakers couldn’t work out how to tell it) so we’ll lecture you at the beginning so you don’t have to trouble your tiny minds. It’s a terrible idea that movies seldom recover from, but thankfully John Carter does, so I prefer to expunge those horrible 5 minutes from my mind and imagine instead that the movie begins when a young Edgar Rice Burroughs discovers that his Uncle John Carter has died in strange and unexpected circumstances. Handed his Uncle’s journal, he begins to read and we are transported to frontier America and introduced to our hero, an embittered, gold obsessed derelict of a man who has lost all empathy and humanity.
It’s a lovely multi-faceted introduction, full of action, gentle humour and a growing sense that we are dealing with a severely damaged man. It’s certainly not the same John Carter of the original novel, but that’s no bad thing, and nor is this only thing the movie tinkers with, yet looking back, I feel no sense of outrage – this is still A Princess of Mars in all the essentials and when Carter is accidentally transported to Mars, the viewer is treated to one of the most artfully conceived alien worlds in recent memory: trackless deserts, great abandoned cities on the shores of vanished seas and inhabitants as strange as they are varied. I was particularly happy to see the Tharks are still much as Burroughs imagined them, a noble race reduced to brutality by the rigors of existence on a dying world, though I really wish we could have spent more time with them. The film does feel needlessly rushed at times, and I think there was a missed opportunity here to show in greater depth the development of Carter’s growing sense of kinship with the Tharks, despite their many repellent aspects. This was always for me the strongest element of the book, and it is telling that when Stanton focuses on this, it provides some of the most compelling moments of the film, such as when the Tharks murder in cold bold the runts in a litter of their young.
This is not a perfect film by any means; the editing has the feel of something that has been chopped and changed too many times at the hands of too many focus groups, but you can still feel the reverence for the material and I believe that Stanton has fought hard to keep his vision intact. He may not have won every battle – I have to wonder if those opening scenes on Mars were foisted on him – but there’s a great film trying hard to get out here, and when those flashes of brilliance are allowed to shine, you find yourself transported to a living breathing Mars filled with all the things you want from a great movie, soaring imagination, grand sweeping vistas and wonderful characters. Taylor Kitsch is well cast, with the necessary physical muscle for the part, but enough acting chops to do good work with the character. I liked him a lot in the role, but kudos also to Lynn Collins, who does sterling work with the character of love interest Dejah Thoris: princess, scientist and warrior rolled into one. There’s good chemistry between the two, and their feelings for each other, especially the conflicted emotions of Taylor, makes for an effective and emotional love story.
Would I have done it differently (pardon the hubris)? Yes, I think I would. I would have pushed the retro vintage pedigree of the story more – that awful intro makes a ham fisted attempt to justify an atmosphere on Mars, and that I think was a mistake. The implausibility should have been amped up, embraced and even revelled in. Alternatively, it occurs to me that they could have introduced a time travel aspect to the story, suggesting perhaps that Carter had in travelling to Mars, also arrived in the far Martian past. A framing device of a first Martian landing on Mars could have then been introduced, in which Astronauts discover the remains of the Martian civilisation and Carter’s journal buried in one of the ancient cities. Perhaps the astronaut could have been called Burroughs. However it was done, the audience could have been prepared for this vision of Mars, but they were left completely in the dark.
Which brings me on the marketing. I won’t dwell on this in great detail because others have already done good work dissecting the awful approach taken by Disney, but I am staggered that more was not made of Burroughs. Not one trailer mentioned Tarzan, an incredible lapse, and what about Andrew Stanton and his impressive body of work for Pixar? Why didn’t they push the importance of the story to science fiction in general, why was the marketing so one track, focused on spectacle at the expense of story? Why was Disney so quick to announce, just weeks into the release, that they had a disaster on their hands, surely doing great damage to perceptions amongst the wavering ticket buying public? “Hey, anyone want to go see that film Disney says is a disaster?” I think students of cinema will be debating this one for decades. But hopefully, in those decades to come, John Carter will also get the respect it deserves, and maybe, just maybe, just as for instance Blade Runner grew in statue, Andrew Stanton will get to revisit Barsoom and re-cut the film as he intended, because I can see the greatness in his John Carter, and I strongly suspect a masterpiece is lying on the cutting room floor.