Friday, 19 June 2015

John Carter (Film Review)

Of all the world's most hated films, this is easily one of the most perplexing. Upon its release, John Carter was lambasted left, right and centre with it appearing on many "worst films of the year" lists. Over and over again it has repeatedly been derided and effectively mocked the few times it has been mentioned, and it's really hard to see why. It's by no means perfect, there's more than a few obvious flaws among its strengths, but it was by no means another I, Frankenstein.

Loosely following the ideas set by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the tale follows the life and times of John Carter. A former captain in the Confederate Army, Carter finds himself fleeing local tribesmen and and hunted by the United States military. When an attempt is made upon his life by a being wielding a bizarre weapon, Carter quickly finds himself transported without explanation to a ruined an dying world: Barsoom.

It's fairly obvious from early on where the film's influences lie, and you'll quickly see where there are obvious parallels to be made with the likes of Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Dan Dare and (sigh) Avatar. Ultimately this is something carried over from the source material as, just as so many of Burroughs' works influenced those later tales. It really feels unfair to hold that against it (after all, you don't watch/read Dune then complain it too closely resembles its successors), especially when the visuals and ideas do help hold up. It's hard to pick out a film which features glass winged skyships broadsiding one another, a city on legs slowly harvesting the world, an alien bulldog which can break the sound barrier, and humans benefiting by being a physically stronger for once. Well, in the cinema anyway.

The actual events of the story are well paced and well plotted out. While some seem to complain it was moving too slowly, this seems like a truly bizarre statement to make. After all, before Carter even arrives on Mars (or Barsoom as it's known) you have a ship battle, establishment of the world's state, Carter's personal history and an escape with thrilling heroics. The film seems to have been specifically plotted so that the audience is left waiting just long enough for some real action before it's given to them, with enough world-building left in to balance things out. If anything, the film strikes almost exactly the right balance between the two, yet it never makes the mistake of repeating itself. Just as soon as one fight is done, it shifts to try and give something entirely different, never blowing its big ideas too early on. Not to mention that one of these fights remains one of the most memorable I have personally seen to date. Watch it, you'll know the one.

The film was helped significantly by the fact that Carter himself is never presented as utterly invulnerable or all-knowing. There's a great many times where he slips up, makes mistakes and even outright fails to combat others. Much of the film's early act sees him hamstrung by the low gravity and lacking any knowledge of Barsoom, surviving only thanks to the generosity and uncharacteristic kindness of one green, four armed alien. Even after establishing he can kill a man with one punch, the following skirmish is more akin to an Indiana Jones running battle, with him just one step ahead of his foes.

The actual visual design of Mars itself is a very odd contrast between tribalism and futuristic technology; with guns and spaceships carried by feudal era kings and tribesmen. Again, it is a generic idea, but unlike Avatar there seems to have been some effort into trying to give it some identity of its own. Reflecting upon the dying nature of Mars, much of the planet is shown to be bleakly beautiful deserts peppered with a handful of oases of life. The film goes from showing barren, lost planes to a few of the remaining cities, shifting from one to the next; with the latter often blending shades of Greek, Roman and Indian influences.

Unfortunately, the real weaknesses are not exactly hard to pick out as John Carter goes on. More than a few come down to the script, specifically in terms of tone and characters. The script never plays itself completely straight faced and there's more than a few moments where it pokes fun at itself. Never so much as to make it seem as if it's mocking the original stories, but it does seem to weaken the strength of the material. It's really almost as if they didn't quite believe in people taking the story elements wholly seriously, but given some of the trends in science fiction it's hard not to agree with this. However, while this could be argued as acceptable, the characters fail to really hold up. Carter and many of the others are ultimately roles we've seen done far too many times before, and there's little offered to help them truly stand out or avoid being cliched. It's easy to keep a story with somewhat generic elements going on the strength of good characters, but not so much the other way around.

The story itself unfortunately also does seem to burn out a little too soon. While it has more story to go, after the midway point the fights don't quite compare with the film's biggest battle. There's still new ideas to be sure, but it never quite reaches those same heights. Atop of this, the CGI does start to become painfully obvious that it's being blue-screened. It was a little wonky but workable to start with, but around the time of the bike chase you start having serious problems not getting distracted by some of its lesser qualities.

The big one which really stands out for almost everyone however, is how the film doesn't end. It kind of peters out after the villain is briefly defeated, before ending on some fairly heavy sequel bait. We're never given much closure and it's obvious that the filmmakers were angling to make this a trilogy or franchise, but did it in completely the wrong way. As such, the narrative sets up a lot of ideas but fails to fully confront with the consequences of them or tie things together. As a result, there's more than a few frustrating plot threads left dangling.

Despite its failings though, John Carter is a hard film to hate. There was definite potential for a full trilogy in here and even at its worst it still remains head and shoulders above Cowboys & Aliens. There's a definite sense of fun and adventure throughout, and while more than a little corny at times it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement. Is it perfect? Hardly and it's definitely got more than a few problems, but don't completely overlook this one. If you have any interest in a more lighthearted film with plenty of traditional science fiction elements, this is definitely one worth your time.

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