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The Art of Picking Nits (And Judging John Carter)

February 11, 2013

Personally, I’m not a big fan of reviews. Be they for films, books, comics or whatever I just can’t bring myself to trust them. Sometimes they can be useful on a factual level, for example a review of a board game could tell me what bits I would get in the box, but when it comes to offering an opinion on the worth of something things become a bit more muddled. The reason is pretty obvious – taste is a funny old thing that can vary wildly from person to person, and in my experience there aren’t many reviewers out there whose tastes match up neatly with mine.  If I may make a terribly ill-informed sweeping generalisation I’d say the main problem is that most of the people who make a living as reviewers or critics tend to be of a certain type – the slightly snobbish, Media Studies type with little to no sense of fun or adventure. The kind of person that would bang on about obscure directors and the wonders of foreign film or wax lyrical about subtext and cinematography rather than just enjoy something for what it is. The kind of person who gets all confused when I tell them I wasn’t keen on classics like Twelve Monkeys or The Godfather but enjoy tosh like Terror of Mechagodzilla or Hawk The Slayer.

In short, they’re people whose tastes will very rarely coincide with my own. But if we are wanting to avoid the mainstream reviewers we can always turn to the internet and seek the opinions of ‘real’ people can we not? Well, we can but I don’t think it’s much use. Finding a decent review online is like looking for a needle in a particularly insane and opinionated haystack, especially when perusing sites like Amazon. I find amateur reviews all too often turn out to be the rantings of frothing fanbois who will give five stars to anything a certain author/director/whatever knocks out, or savage hatchet jobs that seek to unfairly trash anything they can. Neither kind of review is of any use to man nor beast. And the problem is it can be often difficult to spot these two extremes – how can you tell a fanboi’s praise from a genuinely high opinion of a film? How can you tell if a bad review of a book is a hatchet job or a fair portrayal? As far as I’m concerned there is no reliable way to do so.

An old friend of mine by the name of Ed Fortune writes a lot of reviews (and a most entertaining gaming column) for that hoary old veteran of the science fiction magazine world, Starburst. As well as being a reviewer and an international man of mystery, Ed also has a WordPress blog that can be found here, which includes an interesting little piece about how he goes about reviewing things (cunningly entitled How I Review Things – I could probably learn something from his title picking style). Now, I actually find Ed’s reviews useful. Having known the chap for the thick end of sixteen years I know pretty well how our tastes match up. That’s not to say we like the same things – in fact I can sometimes tell that if he likes it I won’t depending on what it is (our comics taste clash on occasion, for example). But on the whole if I take Ed’s views into account and consider his description of the item in question I can normally tell with some degree of accuracy if I’d like it or not. For me reading Ed’s reviews is pretty much the same as just asking a friend for their opinion of something, though this friend handily writes his opinions down for me and puts them in an easy to find place on the internet. This is of course an approach that I simply can’t take with 99.9% of the worlds reviewers. Maybe I could keep a big log of past reviews from individuals to see how our views tally up in relation to different films or books to provide some kind of calibration to how similar or not our tastes are that could enable me to work out how much notice to take of their opinions… but that would be a massively complicated undertaking and a quite incredible waste of time.

The funny thing is despite my dislike of reading reviews, I quite like the idea of writing them. After all I quite like writing stuff and also enjoying being judgemental and opinionated, all of which are important factors. And of course the two main perks to reviewing have a certain appeal – the chance to get free stuff and to boost my ego by trashing others (I’m joking there, of course – well, mostly). With that in mind I’ve decided to have a go at doing a proper magazine-style review myself, to see if I can’t do it better than all the other crackpots on the internet. I’m also keen to give it a go as a challenge to my writing ability, particularly as a proper review needs to be suitably detailed and yet nicely succinct. Regular readers of this here blog will be aware that I can be a bit verbose at times.  That would be a nice way of putting it, but it would be more accurate to say I can’t half waffle on. So the 500 word limit I’ve set for the review itself could be a bit of a challenge and help me be a bit more to the point. I’ve picked the film John Carter which I recently watched as the subject, (and I promised to comment further on it in my previous post Gods, Warlords and Chessmen) and I’ll be approaching it as if I’m reviewing a recently released DVD. Of course the previous concerns apply to anything I write as well. How can you rely on what I write without knowing how our tastes align, and do I have some kind of hidden agenda? Well, you could always try to get an answer to the first question by reading back through this here blog I suppose, and that might give you some clues to the second point as well, but at the end of the day you can’t answer either completely.

* * * * * 

John Carter (Disney Studios 2012)

Disney’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs tales of a veteran of the American Civil War being magically transported to Mars was judged (perhaps unfairly) to be a bit of a box office dud, but as we all know that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film. So is this slice of retro sci-fi worth giving another chance on DVD?

In short, yes. The movie is an entertaining if not earth-shaking work of good, clean, old-fashioned science fiction fun. It has entertaining fights, great action scenes, strange alien monsters and scantily clad heroes (of both genders) in abundance. The opening is a bit slow as we are presented with a framing sequence set in late 19th century America followed by a flashback to the troubled John Carter seeking his place (and a big stack of gold) in a land traumatized by civil war, but once the action reaches Barsoom (or Mars as we Earthlings call it) the fun really kicks in.

Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins as John Carter and Martian princess Dejah Thoris are functional if uninspiring eye-candy leads, but an entertaining supporting cast including Mark Strong, Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds and a woefully underused James Purefoy more than makes up them. Perhaps unsurprisingly given director Andrew Stanton’s Pixar background and involvement with films such as Finding Nemo, the production design and special effects are for the most part excellent. I can’t say I was overly enamoured with the look of either of Carter’s CGI alien sidekicks, as both the green Martian Tars Tarkas and the multi-legged lion/dog creature Woola looked a bit too cartoony for my tastes, but pretty much everything else is a pleasure to behold. Delicate, solar-powered airships, the fearsome white-ape monsters and the Martian cityscapes all stand out as particularity fine examples.

Fans of the original books should be happy enough here. The film broadly follows the plot of A Princess Of Mars with some elements of later stories thrown into the mix, such as add the scheming Therns as shadowy, manipulative villains but on the whole everything is faithful to the spirit of the books. Some effort is made to expand on some of the fuzzier elements of the story, such as how John Carter gets to Mars in the first place. Similarly the dated sexism of Burroughs book is toned down bit too, with Dejah Thoris becoming more of a arse-kicking, intelligent character than a quivering damsel in distress. These tweaks are quite minor and well handled though, and are probably necessary to avoid pointed questions from a clued-up modern audience. Those viewers who hadn’t read the books needn’t worry too much as even without any background knowledge the film can still be enjoyed by any fan of the genre as a genuinely fun slice of retro science fiction sci-fi action.

Sadly it seems Disney didn’t want John Carter to be a success and so dressed it up as a failure in what appears to be some kind of act of creative accounting, which means we likely will never get to see the sequel promised by the end of the film (and by the lengthy series of books that could have been adapted). But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy this movie on its own. Don’t expect Oscar worthy performances, moving drama or heart-rending emotion, but rather an enjoyable old-school popcorn roller-coaster and you won’t be disappointed.

So I should probably give the film some kind of final rating. So be it – the Dread Kraken of Judgement raises 8 of its 10 hideous tentacles in salute to John Carter

* * * * * * *

So there we go. If you were considering watching this film then you can take my opinion on board or not as suits you. If you do watch it or have already seen it I’d love to know what you thought of it and how close my own opinions tally with yours, and you should feel free to whole heartedly agree or tell me I’m talking out of my arse as you see fit. After all, while I may not like relying on the opinions of others when it comes to selecting my cinematic/literary/gaming/etc entertainment, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy hearing them.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with another opinion on John Carter, this one from Mark Kermode from the BBC. I’d say Mr Kermode is probably one of the better examples of the stuck up, humorless film critic that I was complaining about earlier in this post. His comments on John Carter we are as follows –

“The story telling is incomprehensible, the characterisation is ludicrous, the story is two and a quarter hours long and it’s a boring, boring, boring two and a quarter hours long.”

Like I say, taste is a funny old thing.

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19 Comments
  1. Yep that’s more or less exactly what me and the missus thought of John Carter – so I guess your review works for us anyway.

  2. Hi there, as I have been ruminating over the idea a writing a review myself over the last week or so, this post has certainly been of great interst to me. I agree wholeheartidly with you on the pit falls of internet reviews and will certainly seek to avoid them myself whenever I come to put my thoughts down on the t’internet.

    In regards to the movie in question, I watched it last year and was very impressed with it! I wouldn’t consider myself a Si-fi fan myself and didn’t even know that there were any books from which the film had been adapted but never the less found it very entertaining (entertaining enough to have waxed lyrical about it to a friend of mine the next day anyway!)

    • Thanks, I’m pleased you enjoyed the post and the movie. If you’re looking to do a bit of reviewing yourself I’d strongly recommend you read the post by Mr Fortune linked above if you haven’t already – I found it really useful. He’s also got quite a few reviews of his own on there which I think make very good reading.

  3. I’m afraid I was a little less generous in my opinion of JOHN CARTER OF MARS. Visually, the movie truly rocked – but they REALLY screwed the pooch writing wise.

    http://stevevernonstoryteller.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/589/

    • I can’t really argue with you there – maybe I have a high threshold for poor writing, had low expectations or was simply distracted by the shiny pictures but I managed to cope with the iffy dialogue. I suppose it all depends of what floats your boat most.

  4. I completely agree about John Carter… It’s a solid movie (based of one of the greatest pulp series of all time) and Disney flopped on the marketing. Maybe they knew that this was the kind of movie that blows up on dvd, which I am sure it will.

    • I still maintain it was made to flop on purpose – dressed up as a failure to avoid further sequels. It made more than it’s budget but was loss-making because it didn’t pull back the £350 million marketing budget? Seriously? The marketing budget was more than the whole production budget? And how many films make £600 million anyway? The theory that Disney new they were getting Star Wars and wanted to focus on that doesn’t sound too outrageous to me when I think about it.

  5. Never read the original books nor seen the film but your review above does make me want to experience either when before I was less than interested 🙂

    • I can be a touch evangelical about pulp/retro sci fi, good to know it actually works sometimes…

      • I was more focussed on fantasy and horror than sci fi as a lad… but I have been catching up on some old pulp stuff recently. Quite enjoyed Deathworld… though if you compare bits of it with Waypoint you’d have thought I’d read it long ago, i.e. when I was writing Waypoint as there are a lot of elements in there which are similar 🙂 I may add Burroughs to the list. Been rather amused by Andy Mason’s recent commentary on some of his work…

  6. Hi, Ben. Didn’t know where to say my thank-you so I thought I’d say it here: Thanks for the LIKE for my post “How to Spot a Bad Writer” a.k.a. “The Five Writers You Don’t Want: Sptting the bad Apple.” Means a lot when people appreciate your work. Anyhoo, seems like you are into fiction just as I am. Me as well!!! The stuff I’ve posted so far are under the Fiction Room tab. As for reviews, I’m not such a good reviewer but I try whenever I can. Haven’t posted any yet, though, not even the few I wrote years ago.

    Hmnn…I think I’ll be coming here more often. Keep writing!!!

  7. Thanks for the comments, and I’m pleased you enjoyed it. I’ll certainly have to a look at your ‘Fiction Room’ in the near future.

  8. Agreed, John Carter could have been better, but wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. On a side note, I tend to use Metacritic for movie reviews and such. Because it calculates an average base on many reviews, even tho I may not always agree with some of them it makes it easier to get an idea of the quality and content of a movie/game/TV show etc. 🙂

  9. Thank you! Man, I thought John Carter was a great film and I still do not understand why anyone would think otherwise. I was shocked to find that the trilogy option was dropped and that Disney will no longer continue with the series. Was it a stellar, fantastic, out of this world movie? No, but it was still pretty darn good.

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