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Friday, March 9, 2012

John Carter Review

I am a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series of books. From the first time I picked up A Princess of Mars as a teenager, I have been in love with the Mars(or Barsoom as the natives call it) that Edgar Rice Burroughs created.  The Mars that John Carter, the ex-Confederate cavaly officer of Virginia, was miraculously transported to was a world of mystery, giant airships, 15 foot tall green men, terrifying monsters, noble warriors, beautiful maidens and high adventure.  With John Carter's earthly muscles giving him super strength and the ability to jump hundreds of feet, the stories of Barsoom were an amazing amalgamation of any type of story you could want.  The stories of John Carter were westerns, superhero tales,  sci-fi, romance and adventure all rolled into one . . . they were just plain fun.  Since first reading A Princess of Mars all those years ago I have re-read it and its sequels cover to cover half a dozen times.  In that time I naturally imagined what a John Carter of Mars movie would be.  Over the years as different productions started and stopped, different names got attached and then left, I was always visualising what could and should be in a John Carter movie.

That's why sitting down to review the John Carter movie that was made, is so difficult.  As I was watching John Carter I felt torn between what I've been imagining for years and what I was actually seeing on screen. It's so easy to let the fanboy in yourself take over and pick something apart.  I can sit here and bitch about how John Carter gets to Mars, why the Green Men aren't 15 ft tall, why the White Apes are blind, why Therns are even in the movie, why Tars Tarkas starts as Jeddak and more . . . but, that's not really fair the film.  Roger Ebert, the most influential film critic in my life, often says that when criticizing a film you can't criticize what you wish the movie was, but instead you must only criticize what the film is attempting to be.  It would be totally unfair for me to sit here and say, well that isn't a movie that I imagined and would want, because I am not the one making the movie. Andrew Stanton, the talented director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, was the one who created this film.  This is Andrew Stanton's John Carter of Mars.

That's the thing that I didn't quite understand when I was walking into the theater, and was probably more than a little naive about.  Since I largely stayed away from marketing materials I had partially convinced myself, or maybe deluded myself with false hope, that we would be getting Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars projected up on the screen.  What I had failed to consider before the film was that we were watching Andrew Stanton's John Carter.  As I was watching the movie there were moments that felt jarring to me.  It wasn't a failing of the film-makers communicating with the audience, but rather me seeing the film through the prism of an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan first.  My mind felt constantly engaged with questions like,why are they doing that here, why did they change that, why did they leave that out, why is that character so different from the book?  Despite my reservations as a Burroughs' fan, I could not deny the obvious successes of much of the movie as well.  Upon reflection since seeing the film I feel like I have been able to create better separation in my mind between Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars and Andrew Stanton's John Carter.

The way that I've explained and reconciled it with myself is the idea that the movie John Carter is not an adaptation of the book A Princess of Mars, but rather Andrew Stanton's John Carter is an adaptation of the character John Carter.  The Harry Potter films were attempting to directly translate JK Rowlings' novels to the screen as faithfully as possible, but no one expects Batman movies to be a direct translation of any particular run of Detective Comics.  We all understand that when we sit down in a theater to watch a Batman film that we may be getting Tim Burton's Batman or Joel Schumacher's Batman or Christopher Nolan's Batman and each film-maker is reinterpreting the character in their own way; not only do we understand this, but we embrace it.  We don't get upset by the deviations from take to take, we love them because they are all celebrations of different aspects of the same great whole.  Taking each individual artist's differing perspectives together they all add to our understanding and appreciation for the richness of the character and his mythos.  I believe that's the best way to look at Andrew Stanton's John Carter.  By making the movie John Carter unapologetically different from the source material, we are given new aspects of the property to embrace and enjoy.  By diverting so largely from the original books, Andrew Stanton is able to make the property feel incredibly fresh and current, even for people who have known the characters and story for years or decades.

What drove this point home was a sequence that occurs about halfway through the film. What makes this particular scene so important was that in addition to being the most effective scene in the entire movie, that it's impact was largely based on aspects of the story which were a complete creation of the filmmakers. I don't want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the moment.  I can tell you that the sequence involves John Carter battling a green Martian war-host single-handedly and that battle is intercut with events that were not created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  In fact, it could be argued that the events of the flash back were antithetical to the character that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about in his stories.  When I was watching this scene I wasn't thinking about that though.  I wasn't worrying about the differences between what was on the screen and what I had read so many times before.  I was simply in awe of the emotion of the moment.  As I sat there in the theater watching this sequence I literally had goosebumps on my arms.  Seeing a point for point reference copy of 100 year old story doesn't give you goosebumps, great film-making does.  That moment in the film made me realize that, even if this wasn't the John Carter of the books that I'd enjoyed so many times over the years, this was still a John Carter that deserves my attention.  This John Carter deserves to be experienced and enjoyed for what he is, rather than ignored or scorned for what he isn't.

Andrew Stanton's John Carter is a beautiful science-fiction fantasy film, the kind of which we don't get to see out of Hollywood often enough.  The sheer artistry on display in this movie at some points is quite literally breathtaking.  The entire production, from the lavish costumes, set design and creature design to the expert CGI, displayed a level of imagination and skill that is stunning.  Regardless of how accurate any particular aspect of the production was, everything on screen was beautiful and had a tangibility to it.   We could sit and squabble about where the green Martians eyes should be on his head, or exactly how his tusks should protrude, but what is unassailable is that Andrew Stanton and his team were able to create green men of Mars that were real for us, not to mention White Apes, Airships, Martian Dogs and more!  That a believable Barsoom was delivered to us is something that truly deserves applause.

That isn't to say that John Carter is a perfect film outside of fanboy nitpicking, there are some legitimate criticisms that can be brought against it.  For example, there are some plot issues which make the story seem a little artificially convoluted and unnecessarily cluttered.  This is a disappointment coming from a director whose previous efforts were so effortlessly and beautifully streamlined.  It's also worth noting that the exposition is at times handled a bit clumsily.  The beginning of the film literally takes place in three different time periods on two different planets with two separate narrators, and it just feels a little unnecessarily muddled.  Probably the single biggest criticism of the film though is that a lot of the characters are simply underdeveloped.  By the end of the movie we know the names of Tars Tarkas, Sab Than, Tal Hajus and Sola but we don't feel a great emotional attachment, understanding or investment in the characters.  Aside from John Carter himself, and to a lesser extent Dejah Thoris, the characters are generally archetypes rather than real characters with them their own emotions, stories, morals and motivations.  I don't think of this as a failing of the actors, who turn in good performances, as much as the amount of time in the script that is spent on unnecessary plotting rather than characterization.  But if the biggest thing you are criticizing in a science-fiction epic is a lacking of deep character development the movie must be doing alot right.

I said in my opening paragraph John Carter was a hard movie for me to wrap my head around. Not because it was a poor film, but because it wasn't the movie I had dreamed of and was hoping for. But, that isn't fair to myself as a film fan or to the movie and it's director.  It's a minor miracle that John Carter even exists, let alone that Disney was willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into a first-time live-action director like Andrew Stanton. There a lot of conversations that can be had about what direction and decisions Stanton made or could or should have made with regard to the film.  What is undeniable though is that he made a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure flick that is gorgeous to look at, technologically awe-inspiring and a hell of alot of fun.  If, like me, you're a huge fan of the books and have read them numerous times, or very recently, some aspects of the film might be a little offputting; but, it's worth the effort to fight through that to see what enjoyment these filmmakers have to offer separate from your book experience.  For people who are unfamiliar with John Carter, or those that haven't read the books in a few years,  I can't recommend John Carter enough.  Despite any shortcomings it is a film that sparks the imagination and takes you to another world in a believable and real way.  We are lucky whenever we can get a film to do that for us. So, while John Carter may not be a perfect translation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars and it may not be a flawless narrative film, it is without a doubt an awesome movie to behold and alot of fun along the way.  Andrew Stanton's John Carter is a film that absolutely deserves your attendance,excitement and recognition.


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