Last night I went to see the film John Carter with my friend Olly. Olly has a PhD in English – as I recall he specifically researched the representation of women in Victorian literature. We go and see films together a couple of times a year or more, as we’re both into schlocky superhero and sci-fi movies which our wives don’t always want to come and see with us (though Em is often pretty partial to superheroes and sci-fi; just not anything with swords…).
Which is to say that Olly knows his fantastical action films and is phenomenally well read, too. But he didn’t know that John Carter was an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess Of Mars, written in 1912 and initially published as a 6-part serial in The All-Story magazine, entitled Under The Moon Of Mars; I revealed this to him as I was buying ice cream. I could tell you how, along with HG Wells, it basically invented 20th century science fiction literature (and therefore films; not to mention sub-genres like steampunk), and how people have been trying to turn it into a film for literally a century, and how it essentially wrote the blueprint for Star Wars some 30+ years before George Lucas was born, which is what I told Olly over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, but you can read all about that at the Wiki page. Olly didn’t know it was Burroughs because John Carter has been marketed pathetically. But more of that later.
I knew nothing about John Carter of Mars as a character until a few years ago when I read Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2, which starts off on Mars with John Carter and Gullivar Jones (from Edwin Lester Arnold’s 1905 book Lieutenant Gullivar Jones; His Vacation) duking it out against the Martians from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898 – Mars was really popular around the turn of the century). Initially the idea of soldiers being inexplicably catapulted to Mars, discovering it populated by humanoid (and not so humanoid) aliens, and having remarkable adventures (and steamy love affairs) there struck me as faintly ridiculous, but 5 minutes of research into what was thought of Mars at the time (that it was riddled with canal systems, for instance) makes it seem a lot less ridiculous, and, in fact, rather like inventive and fun storytelling.
(I worked with astrophysicists researching extrasolar planets [planets outside our solar system that have atmospheres similar to our own] for the last couple of years; Edgar Rice Burroughs is a far more fun storyteller than they are, generally.)
Anyway, John Carter the film is being panned, and is bombing at the box office. The screen we were in was practically empty. But both Olly and I came out smiling, having thoroughly enjoyed it; we talked about it as we walked back to my house, and neither of us could really understand the criticisms it’s receiving. So why do critics hate it, and why are the public staying away?
First and foremost, the 3D is pointless and stupid; director Andrew Stanton (who did WALL•E and Finding Nemo for Pixar) apparently didn’t want to make it in 3D, but was presumably overruled by someone at Disney. The 3D did not entice me to see it; in fact it put me off; I’d much rather have seen it in 2D, and would probably go and see it again if it played in 2D locally. As a glasses-wearer, having to put the 3D sunglasses over the top of my regular spectacles is awkward and silly. We’ve got a 3D visualisation suite at work for engineers designing things, and I’ve seen that demonstrated, but I’ve very consciously chosen to avoid seeing films in 3D at the cinema. I’m not the only person nonplussed by 3D, either; it’s been in decline since summer 2011 at least.
Secondly, it’s a Disney film, and people hate Disney for all sorts of reasons: the cultural imperialism that saw them steal all sorts of myths and tales from around the world, repackage them with beautiful Americanised heroes and heroines, and then copyright them extremely strictly and get rich off the profits; Walt’s supposed anti-Semitism (unproven and possibly unfounded); the overt, simplistic American morality it peddles; the fact that it’s an enormous, crass, wish-creation-and-fulfillment corporation trading in fairy princesses and talking dogs and so on and so forth.
Thirdly, John Carter is an expensive film – $250 million expensive, plus whatever marketing has gone on top of that, and in 2012 it seems crass for anyone to make such an expensive film when the world is still teetering on the verge of economic catastrophe. Tangled (Disney’s animated take on Rapunzel), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Avatar are the only movies with equally massive budgets to have been released since the recession hit (even the second Transformers film only cost $200 million, and the third one $5 million less than that). Hollywood is seen as being as frivolous and out of touch as city bankers; just look at the success of The Artist, romanticising a golden age (long) before CGI blockbusters. (There are more expensive ventures we should probably be more concerned about, though.)
Most importantly, though, John Carter has been marketed horrifically ineptly. For a start, people are petrified of mentioning that it’s set on Mars, despite the fact that, well, it’s a pretty big part of the film (albeit a part that, like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, could very easily have been altered, or just ignored, without affecting the atmosphere, tone, story, action, or anything else). Even the trailers were so poor that fans felt the need to re-cut them.
The fact that the source material set a benchmark for science fiction as we know it, that Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Avatar, Firefly / Serenity, Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop, Conan the Barbarian, even stuff like Indiana Jones, not to mention countless other films, games, TV shows, books, anime, superheroes, comics, and so on and so forth (anything with aliens, swords, guns, deserts, and superhuman strength and agility, essentially) and, arguably, a big chunk of the US space program over the last 100 years quite possibly wouldn’t exist, and certainly not as we know it, has been… not even underplayed, but completely ignored. For me, this is the key selling point, but no one at Disney or in the press is talking about it. If it seems formulaic it’s because it IS the formula.
This all adds up to a sense that people (critics?) seem desperate for John Carter to fail, to fulfill a narrative role as much as other doomed follies and flops and ego pieces like Waterworld or Speed Racer or Heaven’s Gate; so desperate that they’re reducing themselves to embarrassingly poor reviews littered with strange bread metaphors and lazy accusations of the film being “boring” and “incomprehensible”, whilst smugly bleeping out the word ‘Mars’ from audio clips and complaining, childishly, that the film’s nomenclature is nonsensical (as if no film, or cultural product of any kind, with idiotic internal nomenclature like Ewok and Endor and Yoda or Hobbit and Ent and Gollum or Na’vi and Pandora and Unobtanium, could ever be successful or even accepted).
(I like both Bradshaw and Kermode, as a rule, though I often don’t agree with them; it’s called ‘taste’.)
Certainly, John Carter is not the type of film that lends itself to the kind of aesthetic contemplation that can elicit positive critical responses, but cinema isn’t always about that; sometimes it’s about a fantastical, visually ravishing, swashbuckling, romantic, bizarre adventure that transports you for a couple of hours, which is what I experienced last night. To consider two recent(ish) sci-fi films I’ve adored: District Nine and Children of Men are all about plausible solutions to “what if?” scenarios, which is fine and worthy and entertaining and arguably can produce films more suited to “aesthetic contemplation”; but John Carter is about implausiblity and “wtf?!” scenarios, which can and often does produce spectacularly entertaining films. So what if the Martian MacGuffins were left unexplained (some kind of astral projection, immortal observers secretly guiding events, machines that fly on light, and so on and so forth); that’s the point of MacGuffins, and there’s plenty else going on to demonstrate intelligence from both Stanton, Borroughs, and Michael Chabon.
Take Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars herself, for instance; not just a damsel in distress, she’s the heir to a seemingly matriarchal society (they pointedly worship a goddess and not a god, and there are as many women in the armies as men), more than capable in a fight, an accomplished research scientist, and as pursuant of John Carter’s affections as he is of hers. She makes wry reference to the relative appropriateness of her (enforced) attire, commands soldiers, and comes up with the cunning plans that Carter himself is a little too dull to think of; there’s a lot more to her than the trailer might lead you to believe.
The long and short is that I don’t think John Carter is a failure, at least not creatively; certainly it could be better – it could lose 20 minutes, although I didn’t look at my watch once despite having gone to the cinema straight after a post-work game of 5-a-side (and I’d apply that criticism to many, many films anyway), and much of the dialogue is of the “you can write this shit but you can’t say it” variety (again, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar seemed unharmed by this), and it perhaps tries to jam in too many sides, too much exposition, too much Martian jargon – but this seems like quibbling when advance press was making me feel guilty and foolish for wanting to see it, and half had me expecting some kind of horrific natural disaster of a film. It’s unabashedly pulp, but it understands, in fact it revels in its pulpiness; with 4-armed green Martians, phantasmagorical flying machines, a bizarrely cute-weird pet “dog” thing, extravagantly exposed thighs (from both sexes), lavish fight scenes, trashy political weddings, sumptuous scenery and sets, there is a wealth of pleasurable oddness to sweep you along.
Don’t be ashamed to be from Mars.