(Andrew Stanton, 2012)
Pulp - old pulp, real pulp, the kind of thing written by Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, tales of high adventure and fantastic creatures, full of exotic lands, beautiful women, brave warriors, romance and action - that sort of pulp has been largely absent from cinema for a few decades. Modern cinema is sleeker, slicker, more cynical.
Though pulp still seeps through the cracks occasionally. It's there in the Star Wars films, in Indiana Jones, in Pirates of the Caribbean, even though it is often obscured by contemporary style, suffering from death by a thousand cuts due to modern editing rhythms and buffeted by cgi until its most essential, old-fashioned nature is hard to make out.
Andrew Stanton's John Carter is an admirable, earnest attempt to revive that old-fashioned pulp. As such, it adapts one of the core texts of the genre, Rice Burroughs' "Princess of Mars", the novel which introduced John Carter, Confederate Veteran of the Civil War, and transported him to Mars, where he becomes involved in the disputes between various Martian species, discovers the Martian atmosphere gives him great strength and agility, and falls in love with a Martian Princess.
Stanton adapts much of that surprisingly faithfully, and it is a strange testament to the massive influence Burroughs' books have had upon pop culture that a lot of the material here seems very familiar. That is partly down to the many works that have stolen from Burroughs and partly down to Stanton's classical, old-fashioned storytelling. No hyperactive editing here; he fills the screen with big landscapes and bold imagery, and he takes his time. If John Carter seems to share some DNA with Lucas' Star Wars series, then that is mainly down to their cinematic influences; both are heavily reliant on Lean, Kurosawa and Ford for their epic stateliness, and both take much of their visual grandeur from the costume Epics of the 50s and 60s.
And this film is epic; a sweeping tale which begins in turn of the Century New York, moves to an Arizona populated by Apache, Cavalrymen and ornery miners before it alights on Mars (or "Barsoom" as this film has it). Stanton manages the delicate dance between such a grand narrative and a more intimate, character-based piece throughout.
If that makes John Carter sound a tad overstuffed, well, that may be it's big flaw. It takes on a lot; masses of plot, numerous major characters, and far too many themes for this kind of action spectacle to handle. But it works. The plot means there is an overlong scene or two of dry exposition in the first act, the characters make strong impressions with little screen time (a quality Stanton learned well at Pixar) and the themes are generally nicely-integrated with the story. Only Carter's status as a soldier who fought for the South in the Civil War is glossed over, which in a film full of characters making speeches about freedom and oppression, seems most odd.
It is all, undeniably, a bit of a mess. But what a glorious mess! Stanton understands the appeal of the material, so that there is a genuine sense of wonder to many of the sequences, from Carter discovering the extent of his abilities on Barsoom to the reveal of the Thark's temple. That wonder is crossed with a distinct strangeness; something antiquarian and colonial, perhaps taken from Burroughs, is discernible here in the encounters between Carter and these "primitive" aliens, and even in much of the production design. The action scenes are thrilling and muscular, even beautiful at times - Carter fighting an entire army of Tharks, most notably - and the strong characters give it a compulsively watchable momentum even when the plot is at its most knotty and discursive.
The cast is mainly composed of British class, with James Purefoy, Ciaran Hinds, Samantha Morton, Dominic West and Mark Strong all vivid presences. Taylor Kitsch is perhaps slightly too contemporary for the lead, but he is a star; charismatic and physically beautiful, he delivers especially in the action scenes, and his passion for his leading lady is convincing. That may be because Collins is fantastic here; lovely, fierce, intelligent, she carries much of the emotional weight of the film.
The other standout is Willem Defoe as Tars Tarkas, leader of the Tharks, the tall, green-skinned, four-armed, tusked Apache-Mongol-like alien race who capture and adopt Carter. Defoe - and the animators who brought his character to life - make the alien a proud, complex creature who is the source of much of the film's easy humour. The other source is another cgi alien; Woola, the dog-like animal who bonds with Carter and protects him with almost touching enthusiasm.
Both aliens are good examples of the film's great design; they reference the heritage of John Carter in popular culture - from Frazetta book covers to Marvel Comics - but they integrate that within a coherent, thought-out alien civilisation with a touch of steampunk to its technology and a lot of ancient Rome in its pageantry and costumes. Stanton and cinematographer Daniel Mindel keep the film visually lush and timeless, to match its confident pacing, and Michaell Giacchino provides a beautifully stirring Epic score which binds it all together.
The film's probable commercial failure may mean that the franchise it establishes is never continued, which would be a great shame, for John Carter is an interesting, exciting, fun, soaringly romantic and at times batty old-fashioned Sci-Fi Epic worth a dozen modern summer blockbusters.