John Carter poster

Notes On A Film: John Carter

This is not a review of a film, it is a question about a film:

Why did the media rag on John Carter so much?

Because I watched a perfectly enjoyable fantasy adventure film, and I’m completely bemused by the treatment the film received. Is it the greatest film ever? No. Is it the worst film ever? No. It’s simply a good adaptation of a book, with beautiful scenery, a conflicted central character, a strong female character, ships that sail on light, four-armed green aliens, adventure, sword fighting, bad guys, mystery and excitement. What was everyone’s problem?

I believe it was a case of ‘When legend becomes fact, print the legend’ (from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). For ‘legend’, read ‘story’, i.e. not the truth, not the facts, but the fabrication. This influenced all reporting about the film – jokes about the film were made instead of talking about it because it fit the legend instead of the facts. The facts: the film is pretty enjoyable. But this doesn’t fit the story. The story is the money. This was a Disney live-action film that cost ~$200 million (plus marketing), and that was all that mattered. Even Mark Kermode, a passionate and intelligent film critic, pressed Andrew Stanton on the money aspect, when it should have been about the film. (But Kermode found the film boring, so it was easier to fit to the legend. But always take Kermode’s views on sci-fi with a pinch of salt – he doesn’t like or care about the original Star Wars trilogy – and the only genre he cares about is horror.)

The quality of the film didn’t matter – the only aspect that mattered was how much it cost. I stopped reading articles about the film when the budget was mentioned. Yes, films are expensive, CGI films more so, and it’s a gamble whenever a film is made. However, it’s only because of journalists talking about it that we know about this stuff in the first place. I don’t care – I want to watch a film, made by professionals, for entertainment. This film succeeded. It wasn’t perfect but it was enjoyable. You could see where lots of other films have appropriated ideas (George Lucas has stolen big chunks of it: an intelligent princess fighting against oppressors, a loyal pet-like alien, arena scenes where heroes fight against large monsters, the desert as a setting for an alien world) but it was enjoyable in its own right, despite the fact that the original stories have inspired so many other films (the first story, published as a book as A Princess Of Mars, was first serialised as Under The Moon Of Mars in a pulp magazine 100 years ago).

I liked the film – it’s an entertaining adventure on an alien planet, with great CGI aliens in the Tharks and their eight-legged steeds, a plot with several layers of villainy, a protagonist who has a character arc from avoiding causes to taking on the responsibility of leadership for the sake of many others, flashes of humour, and a sense of a story instead of a collection of set pieces linked together with talking bits. I’ve never read the books, but the film made me want to read them. So can we get past discussing the economics of a multi-billion-dollar corporation, please? Are we accountants? I don’t want money analysis – let’s talk about the films.

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