Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Movie Review #1

John Carter: A Revieulogy

Disney has disowned John Carter.

After only two weekends in theatres, the House of Mouse blithely claimed a $200 million dollar loss for the quarter and laid it at the feet of the sweeping Martian epic. And they did it with a strange, almost prideful shrug of fated resignation. They’re basically saying, to anyone who may have been on the fence about seeing the movie, “Don’t Bother”.

But here’s the weird thing; while it’s true the domestic box office is weak, the international showing is, at the very least, respectable. The total, worldwide revenues after only 10 days in the theatres were about $180 million. It seems incredible to me that this kind of income should be considered so far off the mark that it’s fair to dump the film outright. When consideration is given to the likely life this will have on DVD, it seems to me they should be able to recoup the approximately $400 million in budget and advertising they spent on the film.

I mean, they’re almost halfway there, for chrissakes!

All they need to do is nurture the movie a little, show it a little love. But I guess that’s not how things work in Hollywood. “Make the money back in the first two weeks, or fuck you.” Seems to be the prevailing motto.
An early vision of John Carter
By John Coleman Burroughs

Since then, the worldwide total has reached $235 million. That’s almost the entire declared budget for the film, and it’s likely to make another $150 million on DVD. There was just no reason to disown the film other than the cynical attempt to quell any movement on the company’s stock price. Well, it worked, the drop in Disney stock was a minor blip. Congratulations, bean-counters. Bravo.

The film’s buzz amongst the Geekerati is generally positive, but recent attempts at whipping up a groundswell of support for the film seems to be falling on deaf ears. I find this somewhat ironic, considering that some of the bad buzz floating around the blogosphere prior to the film’s release came in the form of purist Nerds who slammed the shifting title of the film. There was much to-do about the film’s moniker being changed from “A Princess of Mars” (the title of Burroughs’s original novel) and “John Carter of Mars” (The title of a later Mars novel) and the final choice of simply “John Carter”.

There was a lot of marketing bluster about how the coveted teen male demographic would never see a film with the word “princess” in the title. (Personally, I think maybe animation giant Disney just has princesses on the brain.) Later it was decided by some other genius, that women would never go see a movie with “Mars” in the title.
An elegant John Carter battling a Thark
by Comics great Brett Blevins

And, when the title “John Carter” was finally settled upon, some had the idiocy to suggest people would confuse it with Noah Wyle’s ER character.


Yeah… that guy leaping around on rusty Martian terrain, brandishing a sword and fighting four-armed green guys… that’s Dr. John Carter from ER. I can see where you might easily make that mistake.

Come on, man.

All of this flip-floppy title morphing is the fault of skittish producers, but some ERB Geeks built up the controversy, rather than just ignoring it as typical Hollywood silliness.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m often a staunch defender of original properties, and I can be a terrible stickler for adhering to the original characters and storylines. Especially when it’s something great, that I truly love. I despise idiot producers and directors who make needless, pointless, and often downright random changes to something that’s perfectly fine as it is. (See recent changes to Ninja Turtle lore by Michael Bay, for example.)

Enough of this sort of dumbass meddling happened to Marvel Comics characters, in the hands of other movie studios, that Marvel created it’s own production company, just to maintain the integrity of the original material. The general quality of their films has risen exponentially due to that stewardship, and the box office returns have proven that cleaving more closely to the source material can still reap huge payoffs.

But, the title? Seriously, man… it’s just a title.

It’s not the whole enchilada by a long chalk.

And, as far as I’m concerned, any of the headings mentioned above would be fine in my book. It’s not like they wanted to call it “Gone With the Thark”.
Boris Vallejo and Rowena Morrill
paint the Martian hero.

The marketing department on the film came to it’s own defense, pointing out that director Andrew Stanton had unprecedented control over the trailers, refusing them money shots with which to pique the interest of the unwashed masses. There may be some truth to this, but I think it would be disingenuous to put it all at the feet of the director. While I don’t think the original trailer is brilliant, it certainly isn’t a hopeless mess, especially for an early teaser. Teasers with much less clarity have been successfully marketed in the past.

One former exec, who dubbed it “one of the worst marketing campaigns in the history of movies” was, certainly, descending into unconscionable hyperbole. A statement of that sort is more about assigning blame than dissecting the reality of where things went wrong. I suspect later trailers, where the director’s vision for them was adulterated, probably had more to do with the muddle than that first teaser.

Hey, I’m looking at the trailers for Wrath of the Titans, and those are a muddled mess that do little to tell me what the movie is about. But, they have the advantage of pushing a sequel this time around, so I guess it’s okay then… right?

Anyway, even though it looks like John Carter is doomed to failure and censure, I’m going to review it anyway.

Turns out it’s actually pretty good.
An illustration in the classic
pulp style by Tom Yeats

It isn’t the home run Edgar Rice Burroughs fans might have hoped for, but overall it’s entertaining, honors the novel, and is busting with visually arresting images and stirring action.

Burroughs’s story, “A Princess of Mars” is simplified but fundamentally intact. The appearance of the evil Therns from Burroughs’s second book, “Gods of Mars” has been moved up in the timeline, affording the film a villainous tag team in the form of Thern Metai Shang, and Zodangan warrior-king Sab Than.

The area of greatest screenwriter meddling revolves around the Therns. They are presented here as an ancient and cynical alien race wielding advanced technology. They travel from planet to planet preying on the less advanced populace they find there, controlling things behind the scenes with their technological shape-shifting abilities, and their powerful “Ninth Ray”. Since most of the fundamentals of Burroughs’s Martian lore is fairly intact, and since technology is such a huge part of our own lives, this tweaking can be forgiven.
A stunning rendering of somewhat
more apey white apes by Joe Jusko

It’s this mysterious Thern technology that transports Carter to Mars in the first place, a change from the supernatural, or perhaps metaphysical, transference posited by Burroughs in the books. However, this new technological angle aids the story nicely by affording us an elegant little narrative bow at the end of the movie.

Deja Thoris has also been revised.

As might be expected for a writer born in the 19th century, Burroughs held a somewhat less badass view of the women-folk than we enlightened gents of the 21st. ERB’s Deja Thoris, while plucky and brave, could also be very jealous and petulant. Stanton’s progressive angle on Deja, as a scientist, diplomat and warrior, is a welcome change. Actress Lynn Collins effectively fulfills the physical and emotional demands of the role, and is, thankfully, of a more voluptuous body type than typical Hollywood actresses. Personally, I’ve had enough of the stick-thin, doe-eyed Tinsel Town ingĂ©nues. Collins’s athletic, full-figured beauty delightfully conjures a glorious, lost age of pulp illustration, and I’m all for it.

Much of the supporting cast delivers excellent performances including terrific voice work by Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Hayden Church as the Thark contingent. Some wonderful UK actors shine as Heliumites, including Ciaran Hinds as Tardos Mors and James Purefoy as Kantos Kan. Dominic West, who plays Sab Than, is delightfully bloodthirsty, and single-minded as Jeddak of Zodanga. Mark Strong rounds out the villainous ranks as the cold-hearted and calculating Thern, Metai Shang.
Frank Frazetta's stunning work on
the Martian lore set the bar for
an entire generation.

The film has two major problems. The first is flawed pacing, which too often loses momentum after great action scenes, and has to ramp up again. Not that I believe genre films should be bereft of quiet moments, but the ones in Carter are often overlong, and too filled with exposition. A little judicious editing could have removed some of this dead weight without much loss to story, and a more gradual building of the narrative drive might have been achieved.

Still, all in all, it’s engaging most of the time, and features some utterly thrilling action scenes, including the arena battle against the white apes of Mars, and Carter’s desperate, noble, one-man battle against the Warhoon.

The second problem, unfortunately, is the lead actor, Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch is effective as John Carter of Earth, the disaffected former Confederate soldier and itinerant gold hunter. He’s even okay as the bumbling newcomer to Mars, trying to understand and survive in this strange and dangerous new world. Unfortunately, he falls short when the role calls for him to assume the role of leader.

A desert scene where Carter threatens to leave Deja Thoris behind unless she reveals her secrets, fails. It leaves us feeling Carter is unnecessarily cruel, rather than charmingly conniving, which I believe was the intent. Kitsch just doesn’t pull it off.

A later scene where he rallies the Tharks to attack Zodanga also flops. What should be an inspiring moment after a heated battle comes off more like a lame pep-talk by a teenaged quarterback during half time. Kitsch’s voice and delivery just doesn’t carry the gravitas and bombast required to spur on a fighting man to risk his life for a cause. I wouldn’t have followed him toward probable death.

But then again, I’m an abject coward.

Ultimately, I buy Kitsch as a fighter, but not as a leader, and that leadership is a key element of the John Carter character.

Some of this can be blamed on the script. Too much is made of Carter’s assertion that he doesn’t want to get involved, that he’s seen too much war and sadness. All this does little to serve the narrative, and makes Carter’s transition from bystander to king a bit hard to believe. Having him take the bull by the horns sooner, rather than later might have been better.
My own humble effort at
delineating the great
Burroughs Martian myths.

I had some small quibbles with the design, particularly the airships, which fought too hard to be convincingly technological, when a more fanciful approach might have been preferable. The Martian watchdog Woola is a bit cuter than I’d have liked, and the White Apes of Mars look more like bears than apes to me, but the CGI effects and digital acting were of superior quality and the action was staged very effectively.

There are some who point out that Burroughs has been so cannibalized by directors like Speilberg, Lucas and Cameron that the imagery Burroughs originated might already feel stale to today’s audiences, and it’s a valid point. For a hard-core fan like me though, there can never be too much of this stuff.

Much like John Carter, this movie whisked me away to a strange alien land filled with danger, romance and high adventure.

Shame on you, Disney, for kicking it to the curb so cruelly and casually.

Read more about the movie's controversy on these sites: