Friday, March 9, 2012
John Carter (of Mars)
I am not kidding. Last night I saw John Carter, a film I would easily describe as the most fun I've had in a theater for many moons. It was thrilling, funny, exciting, sexy (in a PG-13 way), and visually stunning. It's full of dashing derring-do, cool aliens and monsters, and battles to the death. Any 8-12 year old kid that saw this would lose their mind.
...and there were five people in the theatre last night, including the two people with me.
That's a crime. It's a crime because director/screenwriter Andrew Stanton, and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael (THE GENIUS - My favorite novelist, ever) Chabon, have taken the John Carter of Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and brought them to vibrant life on screen. They've also done it without apologizing for what these stories are, pulp science-fantasy adventure. John Carter is exactly what it should be, and, even while making changes (Some that ERB made himself as the series progressed), and amalgamating parts of the original stories, is vastly more faithful than any screen version of Burroughs' most famous creation, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.
John Carter is a Civil War veteran, a Confederate from the Northern Virginia Calvary. The war over, he has gone into the west, Arizona, to make his fortune mining gold. He holds a pacifist stance, refusing to serve as an Indian fighter for the Union Calvary, and haunted by loss. Truly, this is just prologue, but it's well-written and executed, as is a amusingly ingenious framing sequence that is lifted directly, more or less, from the original John Carter story, A Princess of Mars.
Shortly, Carter finds himself in a strange cave, filled with gold...and something else. There is a struggle and Carter awakes in a different desert, far from where he was a moment before. He is on the plains of Mars, called Barsoom by it's inhabitants, where, in the light gravity he finds himself able to leap vast distances, and possessing great strength. No, this Mars bears no trace or relation to scientific reality, but Barsoom is Burroughs version of Middle Earth, or Narnia, or any number of other fantasy realms that writers have created over the years. If you can't roll with it, I pity you, and just stay home.
No, the story is not new, but it is smack dab at the heart of a pulp tradition dating to a least the publishing of A Princess of Mars, more than 100 years ago. It's a tradition that every facet of this film embraces, wholeheartedly. You never find anyone smirking, or undercutting the drama, yet the entire spectacle is so light-hearted and just plain fun, it never feels overwrought. The production team obviously LOVES the Burroughs stories (Stanton and Chabon have spoken at length about it), and that love is apparent in how they brought it to the screen. I can imagine the idea was to capture how it felt when they first read a John Carter of Mars story, full of "that is so cool!"
Stanton, much like Brad Bird with his work on Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, asserts himself as a filmmaker in the live-action realm, I'd even say he eclipses Bird's work. John Carter doesn't approach the sublime artistry of Stanton's Wal-E, but his touchstone of Lawrence of Arabia for much of the visual style of the film is inspired. He handles all aspects of the, by it's very nature, effects-laden production with aplomb, and crafts some really impressive imagery.
The cast is really, really solid, and fairly impressive for an effects film. Willem Dafoe, as Thark leader Tars Tarkas, as usual, embraces the challenge of motion-capture, and becomes, at his first try, a master of the form. Smanatha Morton and Thomas Hayden Church also bring something special, I'm sure Stanton's animation background helped tremendously in this area. I loved all the Tharks (especially the babies), and also liked that the film didn't back down from the more brutal parts of their society from the books.
The human cast is also great, with a ton of great character actors all over the place, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston all appear and do exactly what they need to do to drive the story forward (pulp fiction is a plot-driven form, after all) with verve and energy. No one seems to be cashing a check, and everyone seems energized and connected to Burroughs world.
Kitsch is good, ably portraying a reluctant man of action in a strange land, but he is on my very short list of problems. The real issue is in the early Civil War-era scenes. The backstory shares much with The Outlaw Josey Wales, and I cannot help but feeling that Kitsch looks a little young for the hardened warrior we are told Carter is. I mean the guy is 31, so it's not like he's a teenager, but there's something soft about his face that doesn't speak of years of war and bloodshed. Once he's on Barsoom, and can play the Han Solo/Harrison Ford "charming rogue" stuff, he's fine. Though every actor in this kind of role starts to pale when you think of what Harrsion Ford, in his prime, would've done with this kind of part. I also did find myself thinking, due to the Josey Wales connection I made, how interesting a 70's-era Eastwood would've been as John Carter....
Anyway...That's all supposition. Kitsch is a very good and compelling John Carter. The way my mind wanders isn't his fault, but I stand behind my "too young, too pretty" thoughts early in the picture.
The box office tracking on this film is miserable. They keep lowering the opening weekend estimates. That's a crime. It's a crime because it has nothing, whatsoever, to do with the joyful movie that Andrew Stanton and his team made. Yeah, the plot's a little complex, and it moves very, very fast, but that's a pulp fiction trope, too. What I can't understand is why Disney's marketing, handed this loving, expertly done tribute to pulp adventure, was so terrified to embrace that.
In my mind, this film will always be under it's original and true title John Carter of Mars. Not the meaningless, confusing John Carter. The fact, confirmed by Stanton, that it was changed because "women won't go to a movie with 'Mars' in the title" is insulting on so many levels. The fact they won't use Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, as a selling point is plain stupid.
The mouse house is too busy looking at research and demographics, and not looking at the film. This film shows you, in every moment of it's running time, how to market it effectively. Not by finding the "audience sectors" it appeals to, but by embracing what it is. By reveling in what it is. Shame on you, Disney.
Walt must be spinning in his grave.
So, let me tell you what Disney's high-powered marketers were unable, or, worse, unwilling, to tell you. John Carter is a wonderful ode to pulp adventure that you will enjoy every moment of watching. Go. See. It.