Friday 14 September 2012

Film: John Carter (2012)

Well, I finally got around to seeing Disney's notorious "flop", based on the first of the century-old Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Just in case there is anyone who is unaware of the basic plot, it concerns an American soldier who had fought in the Civil War of 1861-65 who finds himself suddenly transported to Mars - but a Mars unlike the one that we now know. It has a breathable atmosphere and populations of both humans (or humanoids - they have some non-human characteristics in Burroughs' stories) and Tharks; giant green six-limbed beings, intelligent but primitive. Their name for their planet is Barsoom. To be fair to Burroughs, little was known about surface conditions on Mars 100 years ago and the existence of a canal-building civilisation on the planet was widely believed even by serious astronomers (ironically, their opinion shifted against this idea around the time the Barsoom stories were first published).

I read the books as a youngster, far too long ago to recall anything much about them other than the intriguing nugget that the apparently "human" women laid eggs rather than giving birth to babies. I do recall being struck by the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness of the tales, plenty by themselves to carry along young and uncritical readers, even though I knew at the time that these stories were now firmly in the "fantasy" category as Mars was really a dead planet. They made for great escapist fiction: what lad wouldn't want to be reborn as a super-warrior on an alien planet, fighting for a beautiful princess? I needn't say anything else about the plot, as that sums it up well enough for this review.

The film received a very mixed critical reception when released and its financial failure led to the resignation of the head of Walt Disney Studios. So I was curious to see whether I agreed with the critics or the supporters and watched it with an open mind. I was prepared to like it, but I have to say that on balance I agreed with the critics. The structure of the film is messy and sometimes difficult to follow and the pace is frantic, skipping rapidly through a series of improbable events without much explanation. In the battle scenes I was usually unsure of who were the "good" and "bad" humans as they looked and dressed much alike; I could never distinguish between the "good" and "bad" flying machines they used either. The character-building is weak to put it mildly, with Taylor Kitsch as the hero making little impression (someone with more screen presence, like Chris Hemsworth who made such an impressive Thor, might have made a difference) although Lynn Collins is fine as Deja Thoris - unlike most actresses, she has enough muscle to make the sword-wielding seem feasible. The strength of the film is, as one might expect, in the visual spectacle: the Tharks, the strange flying machines, the dramatic-looking cities (including a moving one), and the fighting. Lots of fighting. The overall impression I was left with was of much jumping and dashing around and whirling of swords.

To be fair, the film-makers had the usual problem in adapting a decidedly outdated novel: do they try to make sense of it for modern viewers, or do they stay faithful to the novel and produce something which is frankly rather ludicrous? On this occasion I think they tended towards the latter end of the spectrum. It was just about watchable for the spectacle, but left me unengaged and unimpressed. This was intended to be the first of a trilogy, but that now seems highly unlikely to materialise.

Incidentally, those who like the basic plot idea might enjoy reading a more modern and realistic (if such a term can be appropriate for this kind of fantasy) approach to the same theme, not set on Mars but on an initially undefined world: this is the seven-book Gandalara Cycle by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron, published in the 1980s. I have reviewed the first three novels on this blog in December 2011 and July 2012, and they are great fun - undemanding escapist entertainment.


Dr Evil said...

I enjoyed it when I saw it in April in 3D. I enjoyed it because, as a lad, I read all of ERB's Mars and Venus stories. I enjoyed them as works of fantasy with plenty of action.Tthe uncritical reader really. I just suspended my knowledge of Mars. So I was looking forward to this film. I knew who John Carter was. I expect most people didn't. It was a marketing catastrophe IMO. It could have been better and I'm sure a sequel would have been, but sadly that's ulikely now.

Anthony G Williams said...

I think that's part of the problem - only SF geeks were likely to have known about the Barsoom books (although I gather that the stories have featured in comics more recently).