Why I am Not a Film Critic: John Carter is a Fucking Great Movie

by clementinepumpernickel

 

Sometimes I wonder if critics (and/or the general public) have watched the same movie I have.

Going by the reviews alone, I would have written John Carter (of Mars) off as one of those failed studio monstrosities, where monolithic power struggles occurred between a megalomaniacal-but-inexperienced director and a risk-averse ultra-conservative multinational corporation who look at the bottom line of theme park rides and merchandise revenues; I would have assumed that this unhappy marriage of convenience between the director’s creative vision and his corporate-overlord-automatons produced a product that neither satisfied the aesthetic values of the former nor the money generating requirements of the latter, leaving the discerning consumer ambivalent and frustrated in the middle.

And whoa boy, did they dance with glee upon the corpse of this movie: before it opened, industry ‘insiders’ were gossiping about the turkey Disney had on their hands. As it bombed, it was lambasted by the usual suspects such as Nikki Finke (even though she had to admit it had positive word of mouth). Shit, even the mainstream reviews were — lets be honest — pretty fucking terrible.

But I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. It seems to me that this movie generated a wave of hostility above and beyond the usual hatred generated towards Hollywood blockbuster fare (although it’s ironic that I’ve read Finke defending Michael Bay, I guess because he’s made a shitload of money, and I assume that the assumption of ‘more money = better product’ holds in whatever apartment block of Hollywood she frequents). Devin Faraci has some theories on why the knives were out for John Carter, which tend towards the ‘paranoid’ end of the spectrum, but they do make for interesting reading.

But I’m not writing to talk about those theories: Hollywood has had faceless soulless studio execs for as long as I have gone to the movies, and it’s abundantly clear that because of the tug of war that goes on between the studio machine and the creatives who are trying to produce art, that very few films are actually ‘good’, not just in the crowd pleasing way, but in the aesthetically ‘life-enriching’ way.

I guess that’s even okay: okay Mr Artistic Film-Maker, you want to make a faustian pact and spend 250 million dollars of money — that is not yours — making a movie? Well, you take your chances, bucko. There’s going to be a lot of interested parties involved, anxious to see their money trebled in box office numbers so they can turn a profit and keep their job.

But, box office flop aside, I was tremendously impressed by this movie. Did it change my life (as Star Wars did as a child)? Nope. Had I seen this movie as a five year old child, would it have changed my life in the way that Star Wars did? Y’know, I wouldn’t rule it out. (You may not have got the message, but this movie is fucking great.)

Please note that I am not offering up a George Lucas defence (a la The Phantom Menace) here: I am not saying that the reasons that critics didn’t like the film was because, in their hardened cynicism, critics had forgotten to view the film ‘through the eyes of a child’. That’s Mr Lucas’s excuse for losing his mojo, and forgetting how to make a movie (and deep down I bet he loses sleep over the the way that he has lost his artistic vision, and no amount of *allegedly* using one hundred dollar bills as toilet rolls will wipe away the realization — no matter how dimly perceived — that whatever he has had, he has lost).

No, I actually cannot fathom why critics didn’t like John Carter (of Mars) at all. It seems almost incommensurable, one of those philosophical quagmires that I will never transcend, as if we lived on different planets (Barsoom and Jasoom, if you will).Whereas they (the ‘critics’) saw a movie that was overcomplicated, I saw a movie that masterfully carried off multiple thematic strands and offered far more meat than (say) the Transformers trilogy; whereas they commented on the bland jockness of Taylor Kitsch, I never noticed, forgiving him for the fact that he was born handsome and buff and not that interesting because the director placed him in an interesting world (much as Nolan did with Christian Bale in his Dark Knight movies); whereas they lamented the pulpy overtones, and all this talk of the ‘ninth ray’ and the city of ‘Helium’, I embraced it in the same way as I did a recent series of movies about a load of four foot tall people who lived in ‘middle earth’ and fought a giant eye that looked at them from atop a mountain whilst the four-foot-tall people tried to drop a magic ring in a pit of fire; whereas they complained that Mars/Barsoom was bland, I was caught off guard by how well the film managed to generate an ‘other-worldly’ feel with its subtle cgi work and world-building (the scene where Carter figures out that he is on the ‘fourth’ planet still sends shivers up my spine).

And, of course, the film isn’t perfect. The real problems with the film are, for me, nothing more than nitpicks (with the exception of one):

1) Carter’s variable power levels.

The introduction of Carter’s increased physical abilities is beautifully realised, and when he is killing Tharks (both unintentionally, in the scene where he punches one and kills one, and intentionally, when he takes on an army) he is a super-powered death machine. And yet, when he is fighting more human protagonists, he becomes more human in his abilities. This is, of course, a standard consequence of the requirements of Hollywood plotting, and can also be seen in the recent Mission Impossible movie, where a practically geriatric terrorist gets the drop on Nathan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in physical combat, because the plot mechanics require it. But, fuck it; it’s not a deal breaker, because especially in this movie, you get caught up in the moment.

2) The bad guys are shit.

Dominic West plays a savage brute called ‘Sab Than’, but inexplicably plays him with a cockney accent, a sort-of proto Alan Sugar with the same amount of venom but also a lot more muscle, and is a character that displays none of the memorability of –say– Darth Vader.

Mark Strong fairs a little better playing ‘Matai’ Shang’, an alien ‘Thern’ prone to a spot of social engineering of the Nietzschean kind, but he is a villain that falls into the trap of revealing his entire plot to John Carter when he thinks he has the hero incapacitated. It is hackneyed, but within the film this cliche actually serves to ratchet up the tension, as we see this race of social engineers being able to step in and out of history with very little to stand in their way.

3) Deejah Thoris is a damsel in distress who just wants to get married to Mr Right and not Mr Genocidal Warlord.

(But fuck it, who can blame her? I’d rather get married to Taylor Kitsch than Dominic West, and in the words of ‘Dave the Lighting Guy’ from Orgazmo, I’m not gay or nuthin’.)

I understand why the feminists in the room might get upset at this movie. The character of Thoris, despite being an awesome scientist and a kick-ass warrior, is still forced to beg and plead and cry with John Carter to help save her race from, y’know, being ethnically cleansed. And we’re supposed to cheer Carter as he ditches her in the Martian desert for lying to him, as she sobs on the ground, her spunky attitude broken. Damn that lying bitch for being desperate to avoid the death toll of thousands of her country men.

That being said, Deejah Thoris is ten times the female lead we see in a lot of these types of movies, and Lynn Collins is astoundingly good. I think a big part of the reason that the film works is down to her, and I cannot imagine many of her contemporaries (Megan Fox or Jessica Alba, anyone?) pulling off the role with such verve and wit. She gets to be smart, and kick ass, and display an acting range with the kind of scenery chewing that is reminiscent of (say) Blake’s 7, but in the context of the movie, it works. And, much like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in the other controversial blockbuster of this year,  Lynn Collins and that ol’ meathead hunk of manlove Taylor Kitsch positively sizzle on screen together.

And yet, it it wouldn’t have taken a lot to make the role so much more. In some exhilarating scenes (reminiscent of the Luke versus Jabba scenes at the pit of Sarlacc in Jedi) Carter rescues Thoris from plunging to her death by jumping between airships, which is totally fine — he’s basically a superhero. But it would have been ever better to have her save his backside a few of the times he is tied up or incapacitated in the movie, as she is clearly mean with a sword, and his superpowers apparently vary depending on whether or not he is fighting humanoids or aliens.

And so while she is not just a pair of (martian) ovaries to be rescued and fertilised, she’s a strong enough character to promise so much more. (It’s interesting that the original title of the movie, ‘The Princess of Mars”, was vetoed: you can imagine the Disney execs fretting as to how they would fit this in with Ariel and Aurora and Jasmine and Tiana).

These three points bothered me during the movie (the last especially). But this is minor, compared to what the film gets right:

We are on Mars

When I initially saw the trailers, I was bothered about how Mars looked liked Arizona. But in the context of the movie itself, my fears melted away. A lot of that is due to the great FX, with the addition of carvings of long dead civilisations into the canyons of Mars, and subtle additions to the landscape that just feel alien. The design of the civilisations of Mars veers between neo-Roman, steampunk, and the old 1980s campified version of Flash Gordon, but it works beautifully. The subtlety extends to the skin colour of the natives of Mars, a sort-of red spraytan that makes them different enough without making them look ludicrous (and Mr Kitsch has obviously been told to avoid the Californian sun in the run up to shooting this movie, given how pale he is). Make no mistake: this is world-building done with finesse.

In the trailers, I felt that the cgi had a sub-2002 Attack of the Clones vibe to it,but in the movie, such fears soon became unwarranted, The boffins that plug in 1s and 0s into computers are getting better: the cgi in this movie had more weight to it than Gollum in the L.O.T.R. movies, which is saying a lot.

The adventure is thrilling. 

It’s been a while since I’ve been properly thrilled by adventure. Not superhero team-ups: I didn’t get a sense of an old-school swashbuckling thrill from the Avengers, even though it was a great movie (and one that I loved for the clever writing and sharp-as-a-razor editing). Likewise, John Carter is not afraid to go to dark, with almost Limey-esque scenes of John Carter having flashbacks to the death of his wife and child. But this is not the core of the movie, which is a movie about redemption not vengeance, nor existential despair. Rather, John Carter is a proper hero who just needs reminding of the moral fibre that he is made off (which of course would have been better had Thoris had a more active role in his education, as opposed to being reduced to pleading and crying). Indeed, Andrew Stanton does a terrific job of balancing the various bookends and plot ends, tying the movie up in a point that suggests a sequel, but does not demand it: you know that Carter will end up back with Thoris; you just don’t know the mechanics of this play out.

The action isn’t half-bad. 

Whether it be John Carter swinging rocks at white apes of jumping between airships to fight the enemy, the choreography is sharp and the direction measured and assured: there is no shakey-cam in evidence here. In fact, I’d even be tempted to say that Pixar alumini Andrew Stanton was more assured in his directorial debut as an action director on this film than Brad Bird (also from Pixar) was in MI4.

The romance is exhilarating. 

In the real world, don’t we all hate it when beautiful but shallow people effortlessly get together? (I am sure that actors are probably the shallowest of them all.)  But there is no denying that the Kitsch and Collins have real chemistry in this movie, ably abetted by the dialogue and personality provided by ubernerds like you or I. For me, this sweetened the whole ‘marriage’ subplot, because y’know, despite all that true love/Hollywood Disney bullshit,  I genuinely cared about these characters and the plights they have one through.

Conclusion: John Carter is a great movie.

This a film, that by the Hollywood formula, had it all: handsome leads; a budget that could have fed Greece for about two days (i.e. massive); a Director coming of a track record with one of the greatest film studios or recent history (Pixar); a source material that has inspired many others from Dune to Star Wars. But as the usual, the execbots confused a mathematical model of success with the alchemy that occurs on film sets, an alchemy that eludes marketing prediction, an alchemy immune to boardroom instruction, and an alchemy immune to box office success.

But this is still a great movie, and what’s even better is that we get to keep this: it’s for the nerds, not for them ‘out there’. And if you didn’t like the movie, that’s okay: there’s a Ben Stiller or Michael Bay movie coming along that will entertain you I’m sure. (So please go away.)

I thought John Carter was a great movie: which is why I am not a film critic.

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