Saturday, March 17, 2012

John Carter

               Moons Over My-Isn’t-This-Hammy (with apologies to
               Denny’s for borderline trademark infringement, but if you
               sue me can you keep it to the cost of the sandwich—
               and I will take fries with that—because that’s about all
               I can afford on my blog "salary" anyway)
                                             Review by Ken Burke

Long before NASA’s Rover went to Mars so did John Carter travel from Earth to discover a civilization in conflict and his new-found superpowers as the key to stability.
            So here we have John Carter, a production with a reported $250 million production budget, based on writings from 100 years ago that just barely made back 20% of its costs in worldwide revenues in its first week (not including the usual additional expenses from advertising, production of prints for several thousand theatres, etc.) and is taking a beating from most critics (see the links below for Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and Movie Review Intelligence).  Is there anything to see here, except the folly of a huge corporation betting on a new franchise and putting a Pixar animation director, Andrew Stanton, with no live-action experience in charge of it?  (Although Stanton does have credentials, especially as writer and director of Finding Nemo [2003] and Wall•E [2008], both of which won Oscars as Best Animated Feature.)  Well, actually the movie (this is no “film,” as metacritic supreme Pauline Kael used the term, often derisively, but she’d probably find some delight in John Carter for its sheer avalanche of action) has a lot of interesting parts within its somewhat bloated whole, as long as you can keep remembering that it’s based on a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan fame, although there were apparently a lot of pre-film-release John Carter enthusiasts out there as well) which predated what we’ve come to expect from such adventures as the Star Wars series (various directors but unified under the producer helm of George Lucas, 1977-2005), Dune (David Lynch, 1984), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008), and Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) so that John Carter isn’t nearly as derivative as it might initially seem.  With that forewarning in mind, on to the parts!

            The basic premise is that miserable ex-Civil War office Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is being pressed again into military service in 1868 to help put down American Indian hostilities in our rugged Old West of Arizona.  Through the accidental circumstance (and narrative contrivance) of him stumbling onto a portal through space he instantly finds himself transported to Mars, called Barsoom by the locals, where he’s soon back in war mode in an attempt to help bring stability to an increasingly desert planet (which conveniently has the oxygen atmosphere needed to keep an Earthman alive without a [nonexistent for the time] breathing apparatus).  Fortunately for him that warfare isn’t directly against the first creatures he encounters there, the four-armed green Tharks—including Tars Tarkas (voice and motion capture from Willem Dafoe), one of their great warriors—who at first take him captive, feed him a substance that allows him to “hear the planet” (or something like that) which literally means he can understand Barsoom-speak (it seems to be the common language despite the different species he encounters, so Lucas does seem one up on Burroughs on that point) and learn that the two human tribes, the Heliumites and the Zodangans, are in vicious, seemingly eternal war with each other which will further hasten the demise of Carter’s new but overwhelming home.

            The technological mismatches on Barsoom are interesting, given that the story takes place in the later nineteenth century just a few (50+) million miles from Earth rather than “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” so while some of the residents of our own galactic neighbor look more like Avatar’s Na’vi than us, much of what else Carter encounters isn’t that radically different from the U.S. Southwest territory that he left behind—except for those flying warships used by the Heliumites and Zodangans in their ceaseless warfare (another parallel with Earth), which soar over the Tharks in the same way that various spacecraft fly over the forest-dwelling Ewoks in Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983).  Generally, though, the Tharks ignore the humans’ battles, except when goaded into combat, which allows Carter to prove his intensified warrior skills to his new clan and then bring them into battle at the end, helping to defeat the evil Zodangans and their fierce king Sab Than (Dominic West)Some have commented that the Barsoomian hovercraft look too quaint in our cinematic culture where we have vehicles that travel in hyperdrive or at warp speed, but to me they seem appropriate representations of a planet in development parallel to our Industrial Age, although the technology that keeps them afloat is a bit mystical.  (Remember, though, this is really more of a fantasy film than a science-fiction one, given the types of settings, characters, and conflicts that it features; along this line these flying machines remind me of the re-imagined rocket cars at the entrance to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, now attached to a contraption seemingly out of Jules Verne technology as an indicator that while the “future” as understood in any era may look antiquated in a later time it was still considered visionary in its own period.)  But as Carter realizes in dialogue with the Barsoomians, our large ships that navigate through vast expanses of water (a resource now lost on the environmentally-challenged planet) seem just as much of a fantasy to them.

            For that matter, John Carter is clearly a fantasy superhero in his new location because of his enhanced strength and leaping abilities due to Barsoom’s lighter gravitational pull, which he comes to manage very well with some practice, constantly scaling new heights (akin to Spider-Man’s aerial travels that carry him along, Tarzan-like, through the urban jungles of Manhattan, but for Carter it’s about gauging how to turn a series of jumps into needed travel both horizontally and vertically).  This makes him an attractive addition to Tars Tarkas’ vision of the best defense that the Tharks need to muster against the better-armed (although less-armed, so to speak) Barsoomian humans; yet, there is dissent within the green-skinned ranks on the part of angry, ambitious Tal Hajus (voice and motion capture from Thomas Haden Church) who will eventually take over the tribe and confront Carter.  John’s got even bigger problems, though, with the opposition he faces from Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the Holy Hekkador (Ruler to you, Earth dogs!) of the mystically powerful race of Therns, who call themselves messengers of the Barsoomian Goddess, Issus (not to be confused with our Egyptian goddess, Isis, unless they’re sisters separated at birth with different planets to impact).  We never see any real evidence of Issus so it’s hard to know if she really approves of how these Therns are representing her, but according to their own explanation every other life form is inferior and needs to be kept that way to prevent any real progress in the solar system (and who knows how far else: maybe they’ve got some kick-back deal with a Sith Lord somewhere).  Hence, Matai Shang is doing his darnest to insure the defeat of the more humane, curious Heliumites (maybe their minds are just open to a more rarified atmosphere, so to speak) by marrying off their princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), to Sab Than (if trying to keep up with these names is giving you a headache, then you might want to consult for clarifications).  However, unknown to her, after the marriage she’s scheduled for execution along with any other strong-willed Heliumites so it's not exactly inter-tribal reconciliation at work here.

            Of course this is where things get interesting to Carter because not only does he participate in her rescue at one point about mid-movie but just like Luke and Han find Leia to be more personally attractive than just being the purpose of the hero’s quest, so does John Carter (What a dull name compared to all of these other folks!  Burroughs must have decided that all of his imagination had to wait until he got to Mars.) find Princess Dejah to be the hottest number in the galaxy (finally allowing him to get over his long-smoldering grief over the loss of his wife and child during the Civil War).  This leads to more rescues, mammoth battle scenes, a race-to-the-finish penultimate finale (straight out of another source this time, The Graduate [Mike Nichols, 1967], but John Carter is more successful in actually preventing the ghastly wedding to the wrong guy), and then a honeymoon tragedy as Matai Shang wasn’t vanquished in the battle after all but shows up treacherously to send Carter back to Earth (without his needed return-trip talisman) on his wedding night to Princess Dejah (a tough warrior in her own right and the seeming perfect companion for the new Barsoominan Superman).  Through years of diligent searching worthy of Indiana Jones, Carter is finally able to concoct a scheme in 1881 to set up his own supposed death, thereby enticing one of the Therns to his gravesite.  (Or maybe it was one of their henchman; I have to admit that on a first-time viewing this rapid wrap-up was a bit hard to follow in perfect detail, but it was clear that the Therns visit Earth frequently so maybe they’re trying to rig our future as well to the point of non-progress—which would explain quite nicely our current governmental gridlock and the Theatre of the Absurd that is the GOP primaries.)  The ruse is only to be able to kill the Thern (this is where I get really confused because these mystical guys seem to be close to immortal if not fully there so I’m not sure how a simple bullet was so effective, but, hey, it’s fantasy so just flow with it), take his interplanetary travel device, and head back to Barsoom where the princess bride is surely waiting patiently for him.

            To find out, though, you’d better read the books because with the box-office returns for John Carter continuing at their present level, where even a remake of 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord, Chris Miller) is running the table and leaving Carter further in the desert dust, I doubt we’re going to have any sequels in development.  The closest thing to that may be continuing appearances in 2012 films from Ciarán Hinds, who plays Tardos Mors, current king of Helium, a guy we’ve already seen this year in The Woman in Black (James Watkins) as Daily, the only friend of Daniel Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipp, a haunted visitor to a terrified town.  But he also graced 2011 films Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson) as suspicious operative Roy Bland; Live Action Short Film Oscar-winner The Shore (Terry George) as Joe, returning after years to his Irish home; and of course as Aberforth Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)I’ve reviewed his films so often in my short time with this blog (he and Jessica Chastain should be making films together so that they don't have to invade everyone else's) that I feel like I should be having St. Patrick’s Day dinner with him tonight (especially if he’s buying; his current income from all this recent work should be able to handle my corned beef and Guinness needs).  

            But pre-dinner (more likely to be enjoyed later with my marvelous European-stew-but-more-Irish-than-anything wife than Mr. Hinds), I’ll note that in exploring my responses to John Carter (now of Mars apparently, based on the end credits, just to help drive the Web listers crazy) I’ve stayed with what is actually on screen, but if I were your ideal film critic I’d also be comparing it to the original book.  Of course, if I had to read every book that a film has or might be adapted from (which would easily be into the thousands by now) I’d need unlimited free time and a lot-more-than-limited income, neither of which are on the foreseeable horizon.  Thus, I haven’t read Burroughs’ 1917 Princess of Mars or even any of the serializations leading to the novel beginning in 1912, but I did look over a summary of the book and was surprised to see how faithful a good bit of this movie is to the original, including the opening bit (which I originally thought was a clever bit of postmodern campiness) where supposedly Burroughs is a nephew of Carter and essentially is presenting his “Martian chronicles” as just a transcription of a dairy left by his relocated relative (apparently he introduced others of the John Carter book series in this manner as well)The characters, incidents, motivations, and resolutions on Mars (excuse me, Barsoom) seem to follow the book fairly well also—except for the humans on Barsoom being referred to as red Martians, so it seems that John stood out from them in other ways that aren’t explored in the movie and which led to him being mistakenly associated by these red humans with the white Therns, an interesting twist that was probably more of a complication than director Stanton wanted to go into.

         This gets us back to where we started with Stanton caught between the rock of wanting to be faithful to his source material and the hard place of the inevitable complaints of “We’ve seen this all before” (which we have, but in a displaced and influenced rather than direct adaptation fashion as we get with the current Carter movie, largely because George Lucas seems to have been more directly influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress [1958] and the hero’s journey writings of Joseph Campbell, which inspired him to invent his distant, long-ago desert planet Tatooine, etc. rather than adapt Burrough’s nearby fantasy desert world, setting in motion the ongoing triumph of computer special effects-driven films that have dominated the box office for decades [see for USA all-time champs and for the planetary winners], even as they borrowed heavily from the influence of the John Carter books—including Superman’s original comic book ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” because of interplanetary gravitational differences rather than his later evolution into full flight, unlike Carter’s more plausible “Grasshopper-Man” abilities.)  Maybe Stanton never had a chance in attempting to bring back this relatively ancient warrior after his presence had already been absorbed unknowingly into everything we’re comparing it with, or maybe he and his co-writers could have created a script that would have made it more memorable, but I still find it to be an enjoyable experience if you can just shut off your influences-and-comparisons search-engine modality and let the action flow for all it’s worth.  And speaking of worth, this is in release in 2-D format as well, so I’d advise you to save a few bucks and go that route because the added depth is done well enough (more in the later scenes, while earlier ones at times have too-clearly-delineated planes that look more like a 3-D comic book) but really doesn’t add enough to make it worth your extra expense (although it’s really not that bad compared to my all-time worst example of this technology, the remake of Clash of the Titans [Louis Leterrier, 2010], which tried to get on the Avatar bandwagon by bumping up from the original 2-D but came out as a horrible mismatch of perspectives; if you want a successful 2-D transformation into 3-D you can still catch the re-release of Lucas’ 1999 Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, which—honestly—is more worth your time for technology, visualization, and story than John Carter if you have to choose between them).  Yet, with all of these caveats and limitations, I still find Stanton’s movie to be an enjoyable fantasy adventure tale that I’d rather watch on a large theatre screen (at bargain matinee prices, admittedly) than sit home and read negative reviews about.   I’d say go, you’ll have a lot of fun with it, especially Woola the Barsoom version of a frisky, well-rounded (and very helpful, once you get to know him) dog.  He's delightful!  And the rest of the movie's not so bad either (or maybe that’s just the pre-dinner Irish whiskey talkin’ to ya, lasses 'n laddies; here's hopin' the wearin' of the green was good to ya today).

            If you’d like to explore more about John Carter (just from Earthly sources rather than the Barsoom Daily Planet) here are some suggested links: (the 10 min. beginning of the film which shows you John Carter on Earth and how he comes upon the cave that will lead him to Mars)  (4:30 montage of scenes, begins with Carter in combat with the White Ape monsters, where any resemblance to the arena combat scene with other monsters in Star Wars: Episode 2—Attack of the Clones is … obvious! [maybe it comes directly from the book, which I haven’t read, but somebody borrowed from somebody here, even though the results are visually effective in both movies]; other scenes on Mars/Barsoom follow)

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

No comments:

Post a Comment