Life on Mars

Every so often, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom decides that a film needs to fail before it even hits the cinema. We’re not talking about the truly bad films that occasionally come along that deserve to fail, but the good ones that for some reason (usually studio politics) are targeted for no apparent reason. Back in 2008 it was the Wachowski siblings Speed Racer – a perfectly decent little film that was targeted by an extraordinary amount of critical bile based on a poor marketing film selling something different from the end product. Four years later Disney seems to be doing the same with John Carter.

Now, don’t get me wrong, John Carter isn’t going to change lives. However it is a perfectly decent genre film that seems to have come in for a mauling arguing that for the amount of money that’s been spent on it, it should be the second coming. Whilst the budget is undeniably huge, it’s hard to argue that all of the money isn’t up there on the screen. Allegations that the plot is hard to follow are also indicative of lazy critics who seem to believe that because it’s Disney you shouldn’t have to pay attention – it’s not hard to follow (the opposite in fact), it just requires you to activate a brain cell and occasionally listen rather than expect it all just to conform to your expectations.

The film has been made with an obvious love for the genre; the film it most brought to mind was Flash Gordon, not in its tongue-in-cheek campiness but in its affection and recognition of the genre limits. The plot makes little sense under close scrutiny, but because everyone is willing to commit to these limitations it works. Stanton has also carried over many of his ideas from animation in terms of making sure that everything is right and there’s little excess, for a film that shares many similarities with Avatar (which was clearly influenced by the book) it is a fraction of the running time. A large scale studio release that runs under two hours (excluding the lengthy credits) is a rarity these days, and this never feels as if things have been cut in order to shoe-in another screening per day. His attention to detail is also astonishing, no detail has been left un-scrutinised and everything has a clear design philosophy – once again the outline tells you everything you need to identify the protagonist. Interestingly, after years of action scenes comprising of shorter and shorter cuts in order to increase the intensity of the action (and also reduce the impact of violence in order to secure a lower certificate), Stanton has her chosen to go with longer, long shot sequences that clearly indicate what is going on. It’s a clear throwback to the pulp origins and the films of the time.

The supporting cast is good, relying on character actors to do the heavy lifting in terms of exposition (Mark Strong is turning into the go-to villain in Hollywood) and plot and reducing the weight on the relatively unknown Taylor Kitsch, who whilst not bad, is certainly a little out of his depth in some of the more emotionally laden scenes. James Purefoy steals every scene as a refuge from every swash-buckler you’ve seen and indicates why he deserves to be a bigger star.

And then there are the effects. This is probably the most effects heavy film since Avatar, but whilst that sometimes felt like you were watching a cartoon, here there’s the impression that as much as possible was built. Coupled with one of the best realized / implemented design philosophies for a while it adds a sense of realism to what is otherwise a flight of fancy. The air battles alone are worth watching, slow graceful craft dancing around each other rather than frantic action (in fact all of the action scenes are almost stately), perfectly in-keeping with the genre.

Is John Carter worth seeing? Yes, although a love of pulp fiction raises the interest in it beyond it being the first of this years juggernaughts and some may argue that it offers very little new. Has it been unfairly treated by studio and critic alike keen to kick Pixar? Yes – John Carter is far from being a bad film, it’s just not the one that everyone thought had been advertised.

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