Why John Carter is Star Wars for a new generation
John Carter hasn’t exactly soared at the box office, but as Duncan explains, it’s still a wonderful family fantasy in the tradition of Star Wars…
As the end credits rolled for John Carter, I glanced around to see the reactions on the other audience members’ faces and spotted a mesmerised young boy, sat next to his dad, his huge 3D glasses still dutifully on his face. I turned to my wife and said, “Well there’s going to be a whole generation of kids that grow up thinking John Carter of Mars [unlike the advertising, I’m not willing to let the second bit of the title go] is the greatest movie ever.” And indeed, I hope they do.
Like so many of us, I grew up on Star Wars - it was and still is the greatest and most important franchise of all time, for me, with The Empire Strikes Back still firmly my favourite film, despite strong competition over the years from the likes of Indiana Jones, Dwayne Hicks and Aragorn, son of Arathorn.
To this day I remember going to the cinema to see Empire back in 1980, and having arrived a little late, being scared witless by a giant Hoth Wampa screaming at me as I turned to take my seat. Little did I know at the time that one franchise would forever impact on my life, not just as a benchmark for how I judge cinematic fantasy, but how much it still has the capacity to brighten any day, and how it’s helped to bond old and new friendships. And the beauty of seeing those films for the first time still lives on.
So when I draw comparisons between John Carter and Star Wars, and not the prequels but the original trilogy, you have to understand that I don’t do so lightly.
And so to John Carter, a film that looked to be every inch an enjoyable spectacle, but whose trailer didn’t really excite me as much as I’d hoped and whose adventures I was completely unfamiliar with from any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. The main draw for me was the prospect of the mighty Andrew Stanton making his first live action film, having been responsible for either writing or directing some of the greatest films of all time (the word ‘animated’ has no place to discriminate against how well the likes of Finding Nemo, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. hold up).
With fellow Pixar brother, Brad Bird, having proved that the transition from animation to live action could result in one of the finest action movies to date in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the standard was set fairly high for Stanton – seemingly too high for many critics.
Yet he succeeds on pretty much every level at making John Carter share the strengths of his previous films, ensuring that character and emotion are at the centre of every moment, and delivering the kind of blockbuster it will be hard to beat this year.
So with that in mind, here are a few reasons why John Carter deserves the same level of attention as another beloved property.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
With the character of John Carter based in the time of the American Civil War, he’s far enough removed from any of the restraints that impede on more contemporary action heroes. Carter is justly belligerent and his violent charms feel strangely refreshing. He is thankfully much closer to the likes of Han Solo than the initially whiny Luke Skywalker, though as befits the best action heroes, Carter is equally allowed to develop and grow.
The Martian fantasy element of Carter also maintains a timeless feel, as the civilisation on Barsoom (Mars) may be advanced in many ways beyond Earth, but the hostile deserts mean that the concept of a ship that sails on water is equally alien to them. We are given no concept of period on Barsoom, allowing for Carter to adapt to the new surroundings in much the same way as Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, but with no weight of any future date issues (I’m looking at you Escape From New York). It was always a masterstroke for Star Wars to remove itself from any period trappings, and John Carter wisely follows suit.
“He doesn’t like you. I don’t like you either.”
Dismemberment! Yes, like any decent kids’ movie from the 80s, JC follows in the great tradition of actually allowing children to deal with a certain amount of adult content, walking the fine line between being graphic, yet not condescending. After all, Carter has come from one period of war only to enter another, so the impact of conflict does need to be depicted in order to contextualise the characters and their unique motivations.
Just as Star Wars adopted a policy of dismemberment as punishment, so to do the inhabitants of John Carter’s universe, including the man himself, as various confrontations and battles result in body parts being liberated. If you’re going to make swords the weapon of choice on Barsoom, then what possible outcome could there be?
“If you only knew the power of the dark side.”
That said, the strongest element of John Carter is in its emotive power. I had great concerns about the possibility of watching Carter fighting endless CG beasties, especially the ones pictured on many of the posters, as I’d had my fix of that in Attack Of The Clones and the arena setting looked all too familiar compared to Geonosis.
However, I can’t emphasis enough how much John Carter isn’t about that scene.
Sure, it makes for an impressive money shot to show off on all the advertising, but the scene itself is almost incidental, and more importantly, manages to be incredibly exciting when it finally happens, because by that point you absolutely care about the fate of the characters. I was consistently amazed by how excited I became by the action scenes, and when the film ended, it took all of my British reserve not to stand up and cheer, because despite the grand spectacle, you still root for John Carter as a hero.
While the film enjoys prodding fun at the melodramatic conventions of its peers, when it comes to dramatic impact, it still hits hard. One scene in particular, involving a hero against the odds battle, provided both excitement and upset in equal measure as the tragic nature of our hero’s past is revealed in a full and unflinching depiction.
It’s the kind of dramatic handling which is all too rare, and a timely reminder of how well the Star Wars films showed their battles – Obi Wan fighting Darth Vader is fairly calm, but the emotional power isn’t lessened, even more so when Luke confronts Vader for the last time.
Tragedy and emotive conflicts are at the heart of both Star Wars and John Carter, and they’re both all the richer for it. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the tremendously rousing score by JJ Abrams and Pixar favourite, Michael Giacchino, as no grand space opera would be complete without a suitably bombastic soundtrack.
“Princess? What’s going on?”
Ah, what it was to be young and in love, or to be more specific – young and in love with Princess Leia. She was my first true love (according to my Tony the Tiger diary) and as the years have passed, my affinity for her has not diminished. It seems that strong female leads were a natural part of my adolescence with the likes of Sarah Connor and Ripley providing equal parts guts and glamour to a young and impressionable sci-fi fan.
It’s a source of debate, but I really don’t feel that there are as many cinematic female characters now that have such a strong sense of self and equality, which made Lynn Collins, as Dejah Thoris, somewhat of a revelation. Here is a princess whose intelligence is the main threat towards John Carter's central conspiracy and who is equally, if not more so, adept at swordplay. Certainly her attire never extends much more beyond skimpy, but then she is still a princess who lives on a sun soaked planet.
Either way, Lynn Collins’ performance drives the strength behind Thoris, whose devotion is always to her people first, regardless of her own personal feelings. There’s never a sense of weakness of dependency on her part – she wants John Carter’s help, but is prepared to let him go and sacrifice her own future if need be. Collins also draws attention to the deficit in the casting of most blockbusters, as her experience and performance shine a light on the constant decisions made to give roles to... well, I don’t think I need to name names.
“Point it at the deck!”
A simple joy but - floating skiffs with deck mounted cannons blasting at each other, while a sword-wielding hero acrobatically flips through the air in the middle of a desert landscape, with a princess in tow? Yes please.
“Everybody gets delusions of grandeur.”
Remember in the days before CGI, when George Lucas created creatures and robots who were both loveable and funny? R2D2 and Chewbacca still rank amongst some of the greatest fantasy characters created, a feat made even more impressive by their wordless restraints. Despite all the technological advances, few recent creations have been able to match a beeping tin can and a growling hairball.
I have no doubt that Andrew Stanton’s background made such a difference to the CG creations in John Carter, but they are perfectly conceived. One of the aspects I love most about watching a new Disney film is waiting to discover which scene-stealing side character will appear and instantly become the most beloved part of the film – Stanton even managed to make an entire film starring one such character in Wall-E. I defy anyone to watch John Carter and not want their own Woola, who is probably best described as a superfast alien mega-puppy.
Even the more prominent CG characters such as Tars Tarkas feel beautifully rounded, at times relying on straightforward fish out of water staples such as calling John Carter “Virginia” (which really shouldn’t have been as amusing as it was) to moments of simple physical slapstick or pathos. In the case of Tarkas, the character has the added benefit of being superbly voice by Willem Defoe, who deftly side steps his normal ability to sound absolutely terrifying.
“Good, our first catch of the day.”
John Carter even cleverly manages to duplicate the casting process that worked so well for Star Wars, which hadn’t even occurred to me until writing this article, but adds another level of familiarity and accessibility. Carter stars two relatively unknown American actors in Wolverine alumni Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch, and surrounds them with a strong British supporting cast, who play both villainous and heroic roles to a tee.
Though I haven’t mentioned Kitsch by name yet, I think you’ve probably gathered by my enthusiasm for his character that he’s a perfect fit, unexpectedly so in the 1800s period. Here’s hoping he gets a chance to play Gambit again in the future too, as the older he gets, the more perfect he’ll be to play my favourite character from Xavier’s team once more.
Elsewhere, Ciaran Hinds plays the forlorn ruler of Helium, with a right hand man in the form of James Purefoy. Now Purefoy I've enthused about in many thousands of words on this site, so was a little perplexed at why he’d been cast in such a minor role, but patience is a virtue, and the payoff was a moment of comedy gold.
Fellow Brits Dominic West and Mark Strong are on villain duties, both of whom are great, though I suspect there is now some form of Hollywood law passed that cites ‘no movie villain shall be played by anyone other than Mark Strong’, which is all the better for the film world.
“No, there is another.”
Of course John Carter, unlike Star Wars, actually has its sequels planned out and written already, so there’s no chance of false promises this time. Hopefully with the box office numbers on the increase and positive word of mouth spreading to counteract the strange and unwarranted witch-hunt by other critics, another John Carter adventure will happen. I certainly hope so.
“Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”
It wasn’t just the sight of a boy and his dad watching a science fiction fantasy together that made me connect Star Wars to John Carter, it just reaffirmed everything I’d felt while watching the film – that superb, exciting and emotional live action family films are a rare breed indeed.
So if you were undecided, but felt something urging you towards John Carter, then the big screen is where you should head (my wife took me as a surprise to see it at the BFI IMAX, and it looked stunning).
I fell unexpectedly in love with this film, and I simply cannot endorse it enough.