Thursday, March 8, 2012
John Carter Review
Okay, so I just got back from a midnight screening of John Carter. There was practically no one in the theater. Not a good sign, although I think it has a lot to do with the totally half-assed sleepwalking ad campaign that the numbnutses at Disney dreamed up. I never saw a trailer for the movie on TV or in the theaters. The posters were boring, downright terrible, never gave you the slightest idea that the movie's a great big creaturefest, and that there's quite a bit of good epic violence, and that there's a whole lot of dishy Lynn Collins on display. Nope, it was almost as though someone had decided they weren't going to spend any more money on the film, and they might as well just about bury it.
Well, it's going to be a real pity if the franchise dies at the gitgo. The movie's not perfect, but it's a whole lot better than any of those latter-day Star Wars abortions, or godawful crap like Transformers. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I've been lusting for a proper John Carter movie for most of my life. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs, used to read three Burroughs novels a day (they were short, I didn't get any sleep, and I used a flashlight under my blanket), and this flick strikes me as the first genuinely Burroughsian movie ever made. Yeah, it takes a bunch of liberties, but some of them are a good idea...most of all, it propels you into an vivid alien world cooked up by one of the master imaginations of fantasy fiction. Like L. Frank Baum, Burroughs was an idea guy par excellance, and the film really capitalizes on that. There are, of course, all sorts of idiots out there who are complaining about a lack of "freshness," but of course, Burroughs was plundered by just about everybody. Moreover, there's a bunch of stuff in the movie that you really haven't seen before. The Thark hatchlings and Woola pretty much justify the price of admission all by themselves.
The titular character, played by Taylor Kitsch, is an ex-confederate cavalryman who's war-weary but nonetheless loves to fight...yep, the characterization is rather incoherent. And we do have to wade through some lame Indian-fighting stuff before Carter finds himself in a weird cave where he's transported to Mars, the reason for his going hence rather stronger here than it was in the source material.
Once he gets to Mars, or Barsoom, as it's known to its inhabitants, things pick right up. We get a ton of splendid Utah scenery, and pretty much everything with the Tharks, giant tusky four-armed green barbarians, is very cool. Woola, the aforementioned Martian doggy, is just great. Willem Dafoe aces his voice and mo-cap duties as Tars Tarkas, the Thark chieftain. Tars is inclined to help our hero, while his evil rival, Tal Hajus, is not; the green guys have no love of the red Martian humans, but get enmeshed in their feuds when Princess Dejah Thoris, fleeing a forced marriage, is rescued in spectacular fashion by Carter, who, it turns out, can leap real high and has all sorts of super strength because Mars has weaker gravity than earth...so it goes. There is mucho running around, occasioned by the plotting of some mysterious guys called the Holy Therns, who are led by Matai Shang, chrome-domed Mark Strong. Seems the Therns have been controlling everybody's destiny throughout the solar system, it really needs to be stopped, and Carter's just the guy to do it...
As I recall, in the books, the Therns were purely Barsoomian phenomena, running a vile religious racket, but having them extending their reach to other worlds does allow for a certain tightening of the story. The very end of the film, involving a young Edgar Rice Burroughs, who's been reading his uncle John's diary, is particularly satisfying. A lot of the other writing is less good...the dialogue is standard at best, and the characterizations could be better...they are, however, much better than anything turned out by Lucas lately. Also, I must say that I didn't care for Kitsch(!). He's just sort of dull. On the other hand, Mark Strong (who seems to be in every movie coming out these days), is effective, and a strong villain is, if anything, more important than having a compelling hero. Lynn Collins is luscious and charismatic in bitching red bodypaint; Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, and James Purefoy are solid. Some of the action scenes, notably, the fight with the white apes in the arena, are excellent; one, the battle with the Warhoons, could've been absolutely classic if hadn't been intercut with a bunch of senseless flashbacks. There are a couple of expository sequences where the film just stops dead, but it gets going again.
I wouldn't bother with the 3D, if I were you...I saw it in 3D because I had to, and I didn't care for it. I think 3D is generally a bad idea, because it's unrealistic and darkens the images...it's even worse when it's applied as an afterthought, like in Clash of the Titans, or this. When I go see the movie again, in 2D tomorrow night, I expect I'll enjoy it a lot better...for one thing, it does have those amazing Mormonland locations (the Fisher Towers, Caineville Badlands, Onion Creek, Lake Powell), and they were all muddied up in the version I saw. I'm sure even Lynn Collins would look a whole lot better without 3D, and she's pretty hot as it is. As for the direction, Pixar vet Andrew Stanton is at his very best dealing with the animation, and some of that, as with Woola and the Warhoon battle, is just amazing. He's less good with the people, but what the Hell.
In short, I had a good time, I'm looking forward to seeing the movie again, and I hope we get another installment. The second Barsoom book, Gods of Mars, is maybe Burroughs's masterpiece...it's got a lot of his very best invention, the first hundred and twenty pages are a marvel of sustained action, the bad guys are horrific, and the end is a mind-blowing cliffhanger...actually, if you’ve never read the Mars books, you should just go out and get them.
It may be a long time before we see a good ERB adaptation again.