Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lost In Our World. Found In Another.

John Carter(2012)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe

John Carter was probably one of the most anticipated science fiction/fantasy movies ever made. It's incredible to think that Edgar Rice Burroughs' popular series of adventure novels was never made into a single film. It did influence much through the last 100(!) years, though, including Star Wars, Avatar and the work of Ray Harryhausen. When this was announced to be produced by Pixar as their first live action film, much excitement spewed forth, which was soon squashed by the news that Disney had taken over control of the production. Disney has not been a very viable group of filmmakers in the last few decades, releasing mainly subpar entertainment. Pixar has had a string of nearly constant successes, so that was a bright spot. Now that Disney had the reigns, my doubts rose and were realized upon the film's release, when critical and box-office reports labelled this a disaster. And not just a disaster, but one of the most colossal in film history.

What went wrong? Why did John Carter fail with audiences? The results are numerous. For one thing, the title is atrocious. Most of the moviegoing public are just not familiar enough with the character and what he represents. It sounds too generic, like some courtroom drama or action picture, not a fantasy adventure. Rumors circulated that the original title, John Carter of Mars(which is visible at the end of the film) was dropped because of the failure of the previous year's dismal, Mars Needs Moms, though it makes little sense why one film's failure means a certain word can never be used again!
The original novel(the first one in the series of eleven books) was called, A Princess Of Mars, and that would have been preferable, but it's understandable why it was not used. "Princess" indicates a "girly" flick and not the kind of picture that would attract young boys, whom this was being geared towards, so at least that's understandable.
Another fault with the film was the marketing, which was virtually non-existent. So little was explained, including Carter's jumping through the air, that it simply bewildered audiences. Likewise, the idea that audiences would be interested in seeing the film that "inspired" several bigger pictures was a poor decision. If the film had been performing well, then acknowledging the past makes sense, but with such little information on the film's premise, it was a fatal error.

Is John Carter a bad film, though?
Honestly?, its not. Its a flawed film, for sure, with an inconsistent script and some florid performances and an overabundance of CGI effects, but its also a spectacle in the classic tradition with an epic sweep and some truly astounding moments and visuals on hand.
Taylor Kitsch has received the lion's share of blame for his performance, but I think he was adequate as Carter, more or less the man as Burroughs described him. His main enemy is the script, which saddles him with a tired back story about his family being wiped out when he was away at war and a social detachment in the character that seems more fitting to an antihero then what Carter's brand of heroism is supposed to represent. In the novel, Carter just ends up on Mars, which is surely improbable, and I can understand the need for an explanation. It's just too bad that by doing so, the new concept of Carter's transmigration is so reminiscent of Avatar(2009) that it may have caused more problems then was intended.
Overall, the actor performs well in the role, looking good in the action scenes, even if the sword-play gets a tad silly(it did in the novels, too) and the jumping a tad obtrusive. Kitsch comes off well, and shouldn't be reprimanded so badly, especially considering that he also was in the dead in the water(pun intended) Battleship, this very same year, a film deserving of the critical flak that has been tossed at it.

Lynn Collins is a decent Dejah Thoris, sci-fi's first super heroine, as well as being the template for nearly all genre sex symbols to follow, with her scant wardrobe, exotic looks and tough,yet sensitive, demeanor. Collins may appear too mature for some viewers, but is undeniably gorgeous in the part and handles herself just as well as Carter in the action scenes, even though contemporary revision is brought up, such as having her dismiss her one wardrobe as being vulgar, which the novel's princess would have scarcely noticed, nor have cared. This was probably indicative of nervous Disney heads who did not want a "too-nude" Princess in a family film, or it could be the product of that typical American puritanical mindset that sex and/or the way one dresses equates sex, in other words, is bad. It's a stupid thing to notice, I know, but I can't help it.
I'm also not certain of why she was made a warrior in this. Dejah was tough and could hold her own in combat, but it seems like overcompensation on the part of nervous screenwriters, fearful of the dreaded cry of "sexism!" as if a woman cannot be strong without resorting to hyper-masculine violence. You gotta love the simplicity of these guys. Part of what makes a character like Carter work, is that he just "does his thing," living out a perfect male fantasy, while also learning more about himself, beyond his own gender identity, though sexual politics probably don't have much of a role in escapist pulp like this. This is black and white storytelling and works best as that. Thankfully, the filmmakers don't push the envelope too much.
It's actually refreshing to see Carter and Thoris married at film's conclusion, as it's such a rarity in the overly cynical films of today, though we are thankfully spared the Princess giving birth to an egg.

I liked the leads. They had chemistry and they were great looking. And so were the aliens! Tars Tarkas is a wonderful character, but sadly has little to do. One of the film's biggest flaws is that they just don't delve enough into the background of the characters and Tarkas is one that could have used more touches. Willem Dafoe plays him(or voices him, I guess) and he lends that great presence of his, which combined with the great visual design(pretty true to the story) actually works pretty well. It would be great to see how this character develops over the course of multiple movies, but it's doubtful that will ever happen.
Credit must be given to the filmmakers for actually trying to remain as true to the original stories as possible, even creating a Mars that never existed, except in the mind of a wacky author. The look of the film feels like an homage not just to Burroughs, but to 100 years of science fiction, ranging from the films of Ray Harryhausen to the art of Frank Frazetta. As much nitpicking as I was throughout the picture, I also found myself enjoying a great deal of it. A smile creased my lips more than once and I got lost in the story many times. Films, especially this type, rarely do this nowadays, and the wonder of John Carter indicates a success, not a failure. It's not a perfect film, or even a good one. It's passable, at best, but has enough strong points to recommend it and John Carter leaves us feeling good, which is ultimately what such escapism is supposed to.

Usually, when I write a review, I give a detailed synopsis. I guess I have been away for awhile, because I plumb forgot! Oh well. I suppose most people reading this blog would be familiar with the story and the characters. I'm certain that regular readers(are you out there?) are also familiar with my fondness for the female form and i'm sure that it's no surprise that a younger version of me was raised with novels like A Princess Of Mars. As a kid, I dreamed of going to Mars, finding my own Dejah Thoris and mowing down hordes of aliens with swords and guns. This stuff was perfect fodder for the adolescent dreamer and still is, regardless of the age. Even, in my 20s, I still derive enjoyment from these stories, praying that one day, i'll see a film adaption of Burroughs' The Monster Men or The Lost Continent, though the failure of John Carter makes that dream more remote.
I'm being forgetful again, my apologies. The plot?
John Carter was a Confederate soldier who finds himself in a cave and fights an alien with an amulet that takes him to Mars, where he goes on various adventures, finds a beautiful princess and fights lots of aliens. He even returns home, so he can tell Edgar Rice Burroughs to look after his body while he's away.
I couldn't make stuff like that up. Only in my dreams.

Below are an assortment of stills from the film, as well as various artist depictions of the story, including the curvaceous Dejah Thoris, as well as Lynn Collins, in a shot from Allure magazine, that reminds me that Mars is probably not such a bad place to be.

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