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Some thoughts on John Carter

There’s always been something more appealing about the idea of John Carter than about the books in which he features. It’s pure wish-fulfillment, of course – being magically transported to an alien world, becoming a fearsome warrior, falling in love with a beautiful princess… John Carter was always the manliest of men, and deeply honourable to boot, and so formed the sort of ur-hero it was easy for impressionable boys to worship and wish to emulate.

And, it has to be said, there something exciting in the mix of savagery and sophistication which pertained on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars. Ancient cultures with flying ships and radium pistols, who still fought with swords from the backs of riding animals. The Barsoomian cultures had all the trappings of decadent cultures, yet were still vigorous and thrusting and more than able to put up a good fight. Which they did. Frequently.

But Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his eleven Barsoomian novels between 1912 and 1964, and they were never more than pulp fiction. Adapting them faithfully for the screen in the twenty-first century was always going to be problematical. Attitudes and sensibilities have changed – for the better, of course – and it’s no good pretending fidelity to the source material excuses sexism or racism (though Michael Bay has no such excuse for his Transformers films).

Harder, of course, to realise would be the world of Barsoom itself. Not just the landscapes of Mars, the vast canyon that is Valles Marineris, or the 21-kilometre high Mons Olympus; but also the various races and fauna, the flying ships, the cities… The Tharks are 4.5 metres tall, with four arms. Prosthetics and make-up are not going to produce convincing copies of that. But CGI can. Especially 2012 state-of-the-art CGI. After 2009’s Avatar, we know such things are possible.

As a result, the Barsoom in Andrew Stanton’s John Carter looks fantastic. Some of the long shots are breath-taking. Perhaps they didn’t get in a shot of Mons Olympus, but there was a canyon which could have been Valles Marineris. And perhaps in places the Martian landscape did resemble the Arizona desert a little too closely. But there’s no denying John Carter is a great-looking film. And that applies to the production design too. It feels as though it melds elements of all the various cover-arts that have graced Burroughs’ books through the decades.

It is in the story, however, that the film has suffered the majority of its attacks. I’m not sure I understand quite why John Carter has come under so much fire. It resembles a typical sf tentpole release inasmuch as it’s a spectacle film, full of awesome visuals and frantic action. No other film of this type seems to have been criticised so much – and mostly for not being what its detractors wanted it to be. True, the white man leads natives to victory is a problematical story, though John Carter is nothing like as offensive as Avatar in that regard. What Carter brings to Helium is an alliance with the Tharks, and that is solely because the Tharks were first to discover him on his arrival on Mars. Yes, he can jump higher and strike harder than any Barsoomian, but it’s his facility with a sword – learnt as a member of the US Cavalry – which makes him a good warrior. The jumping is useful, and moves the plot along in various places; but it doesn’t make Carter better than everyone else.

Perhaps the biggest change between the books – or rather, between peoples’ memories of the books – and the film is Dejah Thoris. In the film, she is a scientist – Helium’s chief scientist, in fact, and close to discovering the “ninth ray”. She is also an excellent swordswoman, as is amply demonstrated throughout John Carter. And Carter himself has no problem with this. It’s a welcome change.

The film does suffer from a couple of narrative longeurs. A long trip down the River Iss seems to serve little purpose, though it does give John Carter the magical phrase he needs to travel between worlds. When the chief Thern explains the presence of his race on Barsoom to Carter, it does seem a somewhat blunt way of getting the information across. There are long journeys across the Barsoomian desert in which little happens. Despite this, the film’s 132 minutes pass surprisingly quickly.

There are elements of the film worthy of praise. There is wit in the script. The cast – many of whom are British – are uniformly excellent; though Tardos Mors, the ruler of Helium, seemed a bit useless. The Tharks are especially good. The story wrapped within a story wrapped within a story structure I thought worked well, and primed the film for two endings, both emotional – the first heart-breaking, and then a proper upbeat one after. Initially, the decision to hold off on revealing that Carter had lost his wife and child years before seemed odd, but when it did appear, intercut with a battle scene, it had a great deal of impact.

It’s been too easy for people to criticise John Carter. “It’s not like the books.” Well, no. I should hope not. “If they were going to bring Barsoom to the cinema, why did they do it that way?” Because that’s the way the film-makers chose to do it. Since when has it become a valid criticism to complain that a film wasn’t made the way the critic wanted it to be made? The fact of that matter is that Hollywood has been praised for creating tentpole sf extravaganza films which are sexist, racist, and insultingly stupid. John Carter is none of those. It’s a surprisingly modern spin on an old-fashioned sf adventure film. And happily it’s been done with intelligence. So yes, I would pay to see a sequel.

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