Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Carter (of Mars!) Review

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

Expectations 'Odor': As indicated by my Nerd Year 2012 post, I've been looking forward to John Carter of Mars. Even when Disney changed the advertized title to just John Carter, I was excited. There's not much in the way of true Planetary Romance genre on film, and certainly nothing that I've had the chance to see on the big screen, so this should be a refreshing breath into a long undeveloped genre (sub-genre, really) of cinema. It's based mainly on the 1912 book A Princess of Mars, which has at the core of the story a profoundly romantic and noble concept. Unfortunately, that idea would be a huge spoiler to any of you who don't know the source material and haven't seen the film, so I won't share what it is and ruin a big chunk of the movie for you. And with Willem Dafoe as one of the lead protagonists, and Mark Strong as a lead antagonist, this should be an interesting flick. Willem Dafoe, who voiced alien chieftain and all-around-badass Tars Tarkas, is an inspired choice as he has a voice that can fluctuate between sage and creep really well. And Mark Strong portrays excellent villains that are sinister without too much mustache-twirling, that can rant at being foiled without becoming impotent, and can plot without breaching the constraints of the character. Also on the baddies' roster is Dominic West, who can pull off ancient epics adroitly and has some experience playing turkey-buzzard bad-guys as well.

Going into the theater I wanted John Carter to be a fun adventure that spanned a lot of space and depth--something like Indiana Jones with aliens (those ones don't count!) and more swordplay. Stargate with more heart and thrilling moments and less brooding. Jurassic Park with more curb-stomping the monsters and kicking Dennis Nedry in the gonads. Star Wars with confidence in your muscles and heart rather than an ephemeral superpower which undulates between sublime Zen mastery and smug philosophical d-bagging. Star Trek with hotter everything and more face-punching. In short, I wanted John Carter to be genuine popcorn-fare with a nostalgic innocence and charm from a poorly represented sub-genre.

Appreciation 'Beef': And that's pretty much what I got. John Carter is a fun, fairly light-hearted movie that is totally appropriate for the family but still has an appeal that makes it geared toward older audiences. The story takes its cues from the source material--a series of 11 books written by Tarzan's scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs--in a respectful manner, although it doesn't concern itself overmuch with detailed accuracy. The special effects are at that happy story-telling middle-ground where they advance the plot but don't steal scenes, despite some really awesome visuals. And the actors all feel well-suited to their roles: the ones you might expect to do well do shine, but even the unseasoned younger stars do quite well.

"Mark Strong portrays excellent villains that are sinister without too much mustache-twirling, that can rant at being foiled without becoming impotent, and can plot without breaching the constraints of the character."

John Carter is a man old beyond his years when the film starts. He's healthy and renowned as a Confederate cavalryman, but he's also a wreck, obsessed with a cave of gold and with fighting for no one but himself. This becomes problematic when he finds his gold, kills a strange pale man with a glowing pendant, and then wakes up in a desolate placed called Barsoom. Barsoom is Mars, and being an earthman on Mars gives the star of our story stupendous strength and the ability to jump great distances--physics need not apply, this is pulp sci-fi at its genesis. The real issue for John Carter on Mars, however, is that everyone is looking for a hero to fight for them. Especially the hottie-princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, who is set to be married to the Martian Dick Dastardly (Dominic West) if no one rescues her. Also vying for John Carter's assistance is Tars Tarkas, who leads a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned Tarks like a pirate captain with a heart of...well, sterling silver, if not gold. This is pretty respectful to the themes of the source material, but with a little bit more subdued brooding on John Carter's behalf and a bit more physical ability on behalf of the princess. The nature of the villains and their toys are tweaked somewhat, as well, but they still feel in tune with the pulp era sensibilities that A Princess of Mars helped launch.

I saw John Carter in 3D, which if you'll recall in my Captain America post, makes for two 3D movies in the past year. Or two in the past 20 years, depending on how you want to distribute your data sample. The 3D in this movie was much more subtle than Captain America, though. There are no moments where the director wants you to duck as a weaponized tire iron flies at the screen, or lurch as the shark looks like it's going to eat you, or reach out in vain hope for that twelve foot-tall candy bar hovering over your Regal Cinemas roller coaster. No, here the 3D experience is a mere enhancement to some of the crazy aerial photography and incredible acrobatics performed by the super-powered protagonist. Its subtlety was reassuring to me, as I tire of the canned shots and jump-cinematography of standard 3D experiences, but others have called it gimmicky to have 3D that you aren't reminded of constantly. The special effects, though, are great. One of the singular features of the film is the way it creatively realizes some truly grotesque creatures in a way that is both expressive and, at times, cute. For instance, John Carter picks up an alien dog companion named Woola early on in the film. Woola's a typical faithful furry friend, except that he has no fur, six legs, is about the size of an obese horse, and has a nose-less pug face. In other words, he should look horrific in just about any light. The character with which he's animated however, gives him a playful energy that mimics the indomitable affection of your family's favorite pet, and he manages to be a cute little critter regardless. The Tharks, similarly, are given quite alien anatomy--not just in that they have four arms, but their physiques are fundamentally inhuman, and possibly the best realization of their race yet--and are refreshingly different to nerds who have had Frank Frazetta and Frank Cho's art dominate their visualization of Barsoom and its people. But they are still unique and distinct enough as individuals that I had no trouble distinguishing between four different Green Martians over the course of the movie. Of course, I can tell the difference between Cho's illustrations of women in black and white, so maybe I am better at this subset of perception than others. My beloved waifu, however, is absolute rubbish at such observations, and she could still tell them apart easily (the movie Tharks--I don't know if she can differentiate Cho women) so maybe those who claim the aliens all look alike have their fuddy-duddy goggles on.

Stupid fuddy-duddies, with their whole "I can't tell the aliens apart!" "Why's he jumping so high?" and so forth.

"In short, I wanted John Carter to be genuine popcorn-fare with a nostalgic innocence and charm from a poorly represented sub-genre."

The actors in John Carter are a capable bunch. There were a few surprises in the casting, with comedy staples Bryan Cranston and Don Stark as Army Colonel Powell and Dix the storekeeper, respectively, serving in serious bit roles in the first act of the movie. Later, James Purefoy showed up for a little chuckle as a Heliumite general. The biggest shock, however, was seeing Daryl Sabara--the little Spy Kid himself--as a young Edgar Rice Burroughs. The rest of the cast, however, was appropriately adroit with the diverse parts. Thomas Haden Church played Tal Hajus, the Green Martian malcontent vying for Tars Tarkas' throne, and he lent his gravelly malice to the small role admirably--making Tal a compelling-if-minor villain. Mark Strong was probably my favorite casting--something about his sincerely diabolical performances always grips me--as Matai Shang, a supernatural Thern who undulates between scheming grand-master and micro-managing monologue-er. Taylor Kitsch as John Carter was a decent casting choice--he's young enough to play a heroic, musclebound lord of Mars, but he was also subdued enough to portray a young man old before his time. Lynn Collins, as leading lady Dejah Thoris, is confident and commanding in her role--which is good for playing Dejah-the-princess, but a little less useful for playing Dejah-holding-out-for-an-earthman-hero. Still, she does a good job playing a clothed Dejah (yes, in the books, Barsoom's people rarely wore anything more than jewelry), which is one of those mixed blessings of the family-friendly flick. At least John Carter is wearing more than a holster and a bracelet.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I enjoyed John Carter as a romp on another world that didn't have to be saddled with baggage of reactionary politics or cynical analysis of the world we live. Critics seem to enjoy riffing on John Carter for not being something entirely different, as if they expected Ellen Ripley to show up on Barsoom and start alternating between mass violence and riffing on all symbols of corporate capitalism. As if he's not supposed to wander a bit, find his stride, and then be awesome in trans-Harrison Ford degrees. While John has a little bit of a (hilarious) learning curve before adjusting to his Barsoomian excellence, I loved both the build up to and the payoff on the leading man becoming a world-striding hero of the downtrodden.

"At least John Carter is wearing more than a holster and a bracelet."

You can call me a post-Star Wars nerd, but I couldn't help thinking throughout the movie how much more I was enjoying it than the supposed ultimate in science fiction cinema series. The art direction of the flying transports, the airships, and the walking city Zodanga itself were all realized in a much more interesting manner than the comparable elements in Star Wars. Zodanga is particularly cool, and the shots of it are massive, evocative, and make for a perfect home for the antagonists of the story. Woola, in his ghoulish cuteness, is probably one of the most fun mute companions in the genre. And we're not even getting into the Tharks yet.

The Tharks are just plain cool. They make for an interesting realization that John is in fact on another world, what with their extra manipulators, tusks, and nine foot-tall physiques. But they also help to illustrate the harsh values that the dying Barsoom has engendered: they live by Machiavellian principles, raising their eggs en masse to hide identities (and presumably defusing sentiment) and then have the women compete over who gets to raise Tharklings. It's fun and bizarre, and it sets things up so that it's no surprise to learn that Thark leaders can assume their position by personal challenge of combat. It makes perfect sense, as does a number of the details about this neat race. Even down to the detail that they posture differently than humans, the Tharks are well fleshed out. This is particularly admirably done when you consider that the original Star Wars trilogy had three installments with Chewbacca as a representative to flesh out Wookies, and yet we never learn more about his character than that he's a supposedly loyal d-bag and wise-acre. The prequels do no more for fleshing out the race as a society or as individuals. Yet John Carter crafts an interesting alien culture and gives distinct individual examples of that species.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': It's important to note that this film, like certain others I've reviewed, has received a harsher critical reception than a popular reception. That is, the average reviewer will give it a moderately negative rating, while most theater-goers give it a much higher rating coming out of a screening. Take that for what you will, but I have noticed two general types of critics of this fun, fresh film: those who are antagonistic to the sub-genre and John Carter's legacy, or those who slavishly require the movie to be a 'faithful' adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' work. The first type call the movie tedious, complain that they got too much special effects and not enough 3D (I don't get that one, either), and that the stars are unremarkable or unrecognizable in their roles. These reviewers also like to point at any similarities to Star Wars or Avatar--a strange pair to hold up as genre paragons--and say that this film is a cheap knockoff of those works, even though the century-old source material inspired both of those highly derivative works, and the points of similarity pale in comparison. The die-hard fans of the original works, on the other hand, seldom see fit to actually review the movie, instead spending their word-counts bemoaning things like the Therns being inaccurately represented by themselves (it doesn't occur to them that the arch-villains could be lying about their origins, apparently), or the way Dejah Thoris is presented as a more capable character than the swarthy shoulder-candy damsel-in-distress she is for much of the original books. I can commiserate with the second complaint, since it makes John Carter fall in line with all other action movies of the past fifteen years rather than making it a more unique throwback to Planetary Romance's trappings--and let's face it, the scientist-princess-warrior combo is a bit of a stretch. The fans will also complain, furthermore, that John Carter himself is not cast as enough of a charismatic Southern Gentleman(tm) and that his backstory is a complete fabrication. The fact that John Carter's back-story makes for an excellent way to flesh out the warrior-turned-pacifist and give him depth without making him conform to the racist overtones of a post-Civil War slave-owner who still resists the US government at every turn just because he's a dixie-doodle-dandy is completely secondary to them. Wow, that last sentence almost got away with me.

"Woola, in his ghoulish cuteness, is probably one of the most fun mute companions in the genre."

So what do people who enjoy the movie come out saying? Well, I've read a disproportionate number of reviews (my own included) that report it was a fun date movie with the spouse. As an action film, it gives a nice representation of sweet moments, light romance, and loyal friendship alongside fun battle sequences and masculine, punchy-but-wry humor. It has a very emotional undercurrent for those looking for it, but at the same time it has giant monsters and sword-fights. It manages to combine most of these elements seamlessly, which I think is part of what makes it such a great movie for couples. The special effects are well done, and there's some really neat fantasy design going on in the creatures, the scenery, and the costumes if you watch the details, but never anything that overpowers you or steals the show as is common in most visual effects-heavy science fiction. And, if you're not too hung up about things outside the movie, you'll find that John Carter is a more cogent sci-fantasy epic than most alternatives--telling a complete story that, while open for a sequel, is very satisfying on its own.

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