From Shades of Caruso: BFI Southbank was invaded by emissaries from Mars last night, and they were remarkably pretty and polite. Shades of Caruso has said it before and it’ll say it again for new readers; seeing famous people in the flesh never gets old, and when that line-up includes Willem Dafoe and international megastar Taylor “Riggins” Kitsch himself, the levels of pre-movie excitement were almost unbearable. It’s enough to make one forgive the cinema for projecting John Carter as badly as it did, or to at least think there was something wrong with the deluxe 3D glasses provided. Nevertheless, during a very entertaining post-screening Q&A hosted by Garth Jennings, director Andrew Stanton pointed out that the projection was haywire. Considering how often this happens during the London Film Festival, this is no surprise.

That picture there is obviously incredibly indistinct (how anyone can make a movie with an iPhone’s crummy little camera is beyond me), but for clarity’s sake, the line-up shows Andrew Stanton, producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, James Purefoy (Kantor Kan), Samantha Morton (Sola), a blurred Dominic West (Sab Than), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris) and Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, obvs). Why am I telling you this? Because one of the most distressing tweets I read last night (from friend-of-the-blog and pop-culture expert @stayfrostymw) concerned how she was unaware that the movie had this cast (not to mention Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Thomas Haden Church and Ciarán Hinds). This is how poorly this movie has been promoted; one of the best casts of the year has not been exploited properly. Madness.

You’d think that with cinema currently embracing nostalgia in the face of modernity that Disney’s John Carter would be an enticing prospect for audiences, and one that could benefit from being tied in with this trend, but then you look at the slow pick-up in US box office for The Artist, the disappointing take for Hugo, and audience discomfort for such palpably old-fashioned confections as The Tourist (a big hit internationally but a fumble in the States), and you have to wonder if the considerable bad reputation of the yet-to-be-released John Carter is down to the bad promotional campaign and intensely, frighteningly stupid and panicky namechange, or just that American audiences don’t particularly want to look back right now.
Filmmakers seem to be eager to harken back to a time before movies were soiled by… well, whatever the hell they’re supposed to be soiled by; pick your poison from 3D, CGI, rapid editing, digital photography etc. etc. However that doesn’t match up with what the cinema-going public wants to see. The Transformers franchise is treated as the cancer that will devour Hollywood, but if that’s what people want, for better or worse, that’s just the way it is, and hating audiences for that gets us nowhere. We can merely hope that obscenely expensive “blockbusters” are made with a modicum of intelligence and passion; “big dumb summer movies” aren’t contractually obligated to have the word “dumb” in there.

These films can be done right. They can be big and human and crazy and grounded all at the same time. Cinema will always be a mixture of the intimate and “independent”, and the monolithic and numbing and corporate. If we’re going to go big, and make something on a scale that justifies attendance of public screenings on vast screens instead of waiting for Netflix to stream it in a year’s time, then we need the Epic to continue as a genre, and we need to pray to the Gods of cinema (John Ford, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton and Ingmar Bergman) for the vegetables of intelligence to go with the steak of populism. And by God, John Carter is that fully balanced meal.

For those who have yet to hear the premise of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books (and certainly the woeful promotional campaign gives little sense of what it’s about), John Carter is a war-wearied and heartbroken Civil War veteran trying to make a living prospecting for gold in the unruly West, attempting to escape his past and the fighting that brought him nothing but misery. Through various mechanisms (underexplored in the books but here forming a central plank of the narrative), he finds himself on Mars, or Barsoom as it is known to its natives, where he is feted as a warrior with incredible powers caused by his superior earth-borne strength. He encounters incredible creatures, warring tribes, sinister supernatural forces, and the love of his life, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. As his story progresses he unites Mars, beats back the forces attempting to profit from the destruction of Mars, and gets the “girl”.

Whereas the ad campaign seems to have created the impression that the movie is some kind of baffling feature-length montage about a weedy Victorian gentleman pretending to be Conan the Barbarian or something, with a tidal wave of CGI that makes the dunder-headed and empty likes of Stephen Sommers’ filmography look like a Dogme festival. It’s really quite simple to promote, even if you’re not giving the full picture of this surprisingly complex but tightly plotted success. Just say this: “You know Star Wars and Flash Gordon and all those movies you loved when you were a kid? The daddy of those movies is back now, and he’s pissed at his kids for making him seem like an out-of-touch fossil.”

It might not be as camp as the beloved Mike Hodges / Lorenzo Semple Jr. Flash Gordon, or as concerned with trade disagreements and Macchiavellian politics as the Star Wars prequels, but John Carter is better made, smarter, funnier, and convincing than any of those movies. The most important factor in the considerable success of this lovable adventure is the enthusiasm and imagination of director Andrew Stanton and his collaborators Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (yes, that Michael Chabon). They obviously adore Burroughs’ flight of fantasy, which reads like the out-of-control imagination-blurts of the smartest teenager ever to sit in front of a notebook with a fountainpen.

SoC has only read A Princess of Mars, but the mad gallop of invention was enough for about ten books. Here’s the impression given on first reading: Carter arrives on Barsoom (the native name for Mars) and meets and befriends the Tharks, fights against the Warhoon, woos Dejah Thoris, fights against white apes, resolves the familial troubles of his Thark friends Tars Tarkas and Sola, teaches their race how to love, fights the Zodangans, brokers a truce between the Tharks and the red Martians of Helium, discovers the atmosphere processor that keeps everyone on Mars alive (and learns telepathy in the process), and in the process criss-crosses Mars about 16 times. It’s a lot of fun, but coherent on a narrative level it’s not.

Stanton, Andrews and Chabon are obviously in love with this world, to the point that they manage to cram in not only the majority of this plot but also half of the second book, The Gods of Mars, which features the Barsoomian “afterlife”, the god Issus, and the creepy technologically superior Therns, who manipulate events in the universe for their own benefit. That’s a lot of event to add to a movie, but by stripping out unnecessary repetition (there’s a lot in the books) and simplifying the anthropological nature of Burroughs’ descriptions of Barsoomian culture (alluded to in the movie but dropped in favour of action and adventure), we get a pleasingly complicated movie with multiple dramatic set-ups, all with satisfying payoffs.

Part of the reason this multi-layered plot works, despite containing more exposition than a movie can usually handle, is because of the familiarity of many of the elements here; after all, they’ve influenced so many other tales over the last century, and were in turn influenced by stories told before that. The story of a mere soldier fighting for the love of a princess in a world riven by warfare and distrust is instantly recognisable, and the look of the movie harkens back to the artwork of old pulp fiction while also gleaming with modern production values.

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