VINE VOICEon 18 March 2012
What with Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, Hollywood is mad keen to find potential established intellectual properties to turn into movie franchises. Franchises are easy, you see. If people love the first one, they'll go and see the others no matter how rubbish they are (Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, I'm looking at you) and guaranteed revenue streams are the dream of, well, not just Hollywood executives, but it is definitely their dream as well as everyone elses.
With that in mind, it was sort-of inevitable that Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter series would make their way to the big screen. It is not the original man-travels-to-alien-culture-and-has-an-adventure story in spite of what some might say, but certainly a early and pivotal addition to the genre especially in American culture. Burroughs' stroke of genius with John Cater was to realise that when it was written the British had most of the globe stitched up in terms of travelling to foreign places and showing the natives who was best, and so he transferred the action to outer space. It's an idea that has been mined by James Cameron and George Lucas and many others for the last century and that is, perhaps, the biggest problem the film faces. We've seen it all before. In Avatar, in Dances with wolves, in books like Ursula le Guins The Dispossessed. Most of the reviews I've seen have taken the line that John Carter is kinda samey and unoriginal. Reviews like that are going to put people off seeing it, which I think is unfair because I really rather liked it.
Perhaps because the story is so old, it lacks any pretentions or postmodernism. It's an unapologetic adventure romp as earthman John Carter is whisked off to an adventure on the planet Mars where the yellow sun - sorry low gravity - gives him superpowers, and where he jolly well shows the natives who's best. And perhaps due to the lack of any knowing winks, political subtext or post-colonial guilt, it's a tremendously enjoyable adventure romp. John (the unfortunately named but pleasingly charismatic Taylor Kitsch) leaps about the screen showing baddies what's what and is ably supported by a supporting cast including Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Mark Strong (typecast as a villain, Mark?) and Willem Dafoe who all ham it up with gusto. The design of Mars is great - referencing decades of pictures inspired by Burroughs' work, whilst neatly bringing up to date some of the more dated ideas (like Martians flying round in airships) and rendering the lot seamlessly between CGI, model work and location filming to create a convincing image of a life-bearing by dying mars. The director even takes the time to reference the work of Boris Vallejo in one battle sequence which ends with Carter standing atop of pile of slain enemies. All he really needed was a girl or two clutching his leg and gazing up at him adoringly.
As I sat and munched on my popcorn, one thought just kept popping into my head. Well, actually two thoughts . First that Lynn Collins, who plays Princess of Mars Dejah Thoris, is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen and where has she been all my life?, and second the repeating thought: "This is what The Phantom Menace should have been like". Phantom Menace failed in two major areas. One, a clunky, exposition-heavy script which led to considerable yawning and bemusement by the audience, and two, a comic sidekick who any normal person wanted to see killed as quickly and painfully as possible. John Carter gets both these things completely right. The script is fast-paced, doesn't pause for breath much or take time for unnecessary exposition and instead of winking at the audience it smiles broadly at you instead. It's like the film is an playful dog, saying "Isn't this fun? Let's play some more!" before launching into some more action-packed intergalactic hi-jinks with an enthusiastic twinkle. Perhaps most impressively, the film contains an amusing comedy sidekick who - get this - you don't want to see dead or maimed and is, in fact, both likeable and amusing.
Wow. Beat that, George Lucas.
So in many ways, the reviews are correct: John Carter is dated, twenty years too late, and filled with ideas that have been done to death.
On the other hand, it's fast, fun, highly likeable, and extremely pretty. It is, like I say, everything the Phantom Menace should have been. The tragedy is that George Lucas is the one who got all the money whilst we're unlikely ever to see the heavily flagged sequel to John Carter.