Monday, March 12, 2012

Julian Perez Goes to the Movies: "John Carter" Review

Short review: a good old fashioned swashbuckler movie with a lot of humor, but one that's dragged down by giving testosterone hero John Carter a "sad" backstory. Stay for Woola's cuteness, Dejah Thoris kicking butt, John Carter leaping, the flight scenes in 3-D, and the surprisingly warm father-daughter subplot. As far as a Burroughs adaptation goes it's very good but not perfect, but it's got everything your inner eleven year old wants: the coolest dog in the world, a four armed best buddy, and winning the hand of a gorgeous princess with swordfighting.

After a whole century without an I the only one bugged by how they chose to pronounce things? I always pronounced Issus as Aye-sus (same as Isis), and Dejah Thoris as DEE-juh Thor-Us.

Long review:

The movie's take on Dejah Thoris, the original work's greatest dragging liability, is a success. She had to be changed somehow and what they did worked.

Not only is the leggy, muscular, exotic, bronzed Lynn Collins a twelve year old boy's dream girl, she's also a scientist and a warrior, heroic and intelligent. She's a princess, but her princess persona is a put on she can slip on and off to cover her personal anxieties. Unlike other newly upgraded martial heroines, the story actually commits to her being a great fighter, and she plays a role in the end of the story and doesn't lose her martial skills when they're inconvenient to the plot (unlike Maid Marian in Prince of Thieves), and she actually wins fights (unlike Kate Beckinsale's fake action girl in Van Helsing).

She actually uses her great intelligence in several scenes to figure out Thern technology and translate inscriptions. She's less a movie girlfriend and more a Spock-like smart sidekick.

She's also a scientist and…well, ask yourself this. When was the last time in comics or pop culture you saw a FEMALE inventor or supergenius?

Making Dejah Thoris a supergenius is actually a pretty good substitution in the story. Previously, Dejah Thoris was captured all the time because she was the world's most beautiful woman and often did things that were self-destructive or moronically out of character, like suddenly insist she was going to marry Sab Than out of nowhere. If Dejah Thoris was a scientist on the verge of a great discovery, it makes sense villains trying to stifle that discovery would try to have her killed or captured.

By the way, when I first heard Dejah was going to be a scientist in the movie version, I was totally shocked because she was so useless. But actually, Dejah being a scientist is a pretty legit interpretation of what she was actually doing. Take this selection from Chapter X of "A Princess of Mars."

“What is your name?” asked Lorquas Ptomel, addressing the prisoner. 
“Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium.” 
“And the nature of your expedition?” he continued. 
“It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father’s father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests,” replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice. 
“We were unprepared for battle,” she continued, “as we were on a peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted. The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life. For ages we have maintained the air and water supply at practically the same point without an appreciable loss, and we have done this in the face of the brutal and ignorant interference of your green men."

The idea she might be a scientist is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of these events, although most people figure Dejah was just there as a royal administrator.

Taylor Kitsch, surprisingly, did a good job as John Carter. He brought to the character a kind of Eastwood-esque serious manliness, and a very Southern chivalry that's the core of the character. He politely refers to everyone as either "sir" or "ma'am." Even the bad guys.

The scenes where John Carter jumps around like a rubber ball under low Martian gravity were really effective and infectiously exhilarating and fun.

One of the things I always thought was unique about John Carter of Mars is, John Carter goes native and adapts to Barsoom really fast, and because Mars is so darn cool, prefers to stay there rather than go back to boring old earth. I never understood why Dorothy Gale wanted to go back to drab, black and white Kansas when she was a universally beloved heroine in the much cooler fantasy world of Oz. To its credit, the movie gets this totally right: when John Carter is forced to leave Mars and the girl he loved we feel the wrenching pain as he returns to Earth a million miles away, never knowing if he'll ever return. The painful removal from Mars, something that later became the emotional core of the Adam Strange series, was perfectly captured here.

Unfortunately, Kitsch's solid performance is undercut somewhat by the fact the script  "fixes" a problem: John Carter doesn't have an arc as a character. This "problem" is solved in the most hackneyed way possible: instead of making John Carter the testosterone-personified, energetic he-man hero we know he was, he's saddled with a "sad hero" backstory. Would I shock you if I told you there were lots of flashbacks to a lost family?

The idea John Carter was a bitter, cynical veteran who constantly insisted he shouldn't get involved and didn't want to go back to Earth chews up and wastes the movie's time, and doesn't play to Taylor Kitsch's strengths.

The movie's strongest and surprisingly emotional subplot is Tars Tarkas's father-daughter relationship with Sola, the only Martian female to know her real father and family. Tars Tarkas is protective of her, and love for her motivates everything he does. Since Sola knew love and family among otherwise loveless and unsentimental creatures like the Tharks, Sola stands out as a screwup who doesn't fit into society perfectly. This is the only time the otherwise drab "sad hero" backstory for John Carter is actually used to really good effect. Because he recognizes something of himself in the big Thark.

Woola of course, was downright perfect and steals every scene he's in…but that's obvious. You can tell the guy who did this movie also did Wall-E, because its best character is a silent little monster.

There was one moment in John Carter of Mars that got an ERB-fanboy charge of excitement out of me.

While in the wilderness, gentleman John Carter and his friends were chased by the hordes of Warhoon, a type of Green Martian more savage and ferocious than others of their kind. The creators of the movie totally nailed it. They looked the part: feral, cruel, covered in bones, scarred and fearsome. It was something I'd waited to see brought to life since I read the books as a Tarzan-loving kid. The presence of the hordes of Warhoon was an indulgence that, according to an interview, Andrew Stanton fought for, to the point he "traded off" an appearance by banths, saving the fierce, distinctive Martian lions for a sequel.

Strictly speaking, the presence of the hordes of Warhoon wasn't entirely necessary to the story, but it showed a fannish gusto to bring Barsoom to screen. I wish there had been more moments like that because there were so few. This was also why Green Lantern and Percy Jackson were such empty movies despite coming from such innovative source material: they saved everything interesting for the sequels, assuming they had all the time in the world.

The lesson here for future film-makers is, even when doing movies intended to be franchise starters, treat every movie like it was the last one. Because there's a heartbreaking chance it just might be.

It feels like a dick move to criticize a movie by mentioning all the things it didn't have, but was it impossible to show some people in the background playing Jetan? No reference to even the merest hints of the existence of the First Born, Kaldanes and the Okarians? No ulsios or soraks scuttling around in the background? A huge chunk of the movie was set around Zodanga. So, no background appearance by someone who is undisguisably Rapas the Ulsio, Zat Arras or Fal Sivas? Nobody swearing "by their first ancestor?" No shots of mastodon-like zitidars? (Thoats are the only beasts of burden used in the movie version of Barsoom.) No one person in the background in a diamond harness who might be a Gatholian? No dropped hints of a lost Ptarthian princess who would later be revealed as Thuvia in the next movie?

All this sounds fannish and nitpicky and I understand that. But I was under the impression from all the press materials I was going to get a movie by lifelong Barsoom fans bringing Barsoom to screen for the first time after literally an entire century of waiting, given gobs of money and freedom. I was expecting the Martian equivalent of the fan friendly, easter egg filled Marvel movies or Peter Jackson's accurate Lord of the Rings. I was led to believe, somewhat deceptively, I was going to get continuity porn instead of a sanitized Hollywood adaptation. If Stanton and Chabon and the rest really were the Barsoom aficionados they say they are, wouldn't they have known Helium's defining skyline and physical characteristic is it's defined by twin mile-high towers? If Barsoom is a world of eternal youth, why is it Dejah Thoris's grandfather Tardos Mors looked so visibly older than she did?

There was a scene in world-traveler John Carter's study filled with parts and objects from around the world…and they couldn't have crammed in a reference to Tarzan, La, Opar, or Caprona? At least the army situation room in Captain America has a map of Wakanda.

At least they used the Martian standards of measurements: xats, karads, and so on...and remembered Kaor, the Martian greeting, and that Earth and Venus were respectively called Jasoom and Cosoom.  That was something!

The 2009 Star Trek had references to the Klingons, Rura Penthe, Cardassians (…surprisingly, since the Cardies were unknown in the original series era), Sulu fencing, the Vulcan mind-meld, an in-joke about redshirts dying, heck, there was even a tribble if you look hard enough – all of which was done without hampering the momentum of the movie. The Lord of the Rings movies were both simultaneously accessible and beloved by the couch potato idiots of the world, and by Tolkien fans for their accuracy and fan-friendly details (anyone else notice Galadriel wearing the ring Nenya?). When the android Human Torch showed up in Captain America, it drew gasps from the audience I watched the movie with.

The notion that something is either for the hardcore fans OR for a general audience is a false, nonexistent dilemma, and a sign of a limited thinker. A characteristic of the successful adaptation is how "full" they feel.

Maybe I'm spoiled rotten by the Marvel movies and by Lord of the Rings and so I expected something unfair from this movie. After all, the norm for adaptations of beloved geek properties is for them to be visibly made by people that just don't care.

There were some changes to the material in adaptation from the book to the movie, but like all the changes in the recent Star Trek movie, they were ones I saw happening when the movie was announced: there were three evil Green Martian chieftains, and so economy insisted they be reduced to just one, played wonderfully by Thomas Hayden Church.

A lot of people said that the new early appearance and prominence of the Therns was rewriting Burroughs's Mars mythology. It all made perfect sense to me, though. We learn in Warlord of Mars that the Therns, as a result of their false religion, come and go as they please on Barsoom, and after the destruction of their culture, Matai Shang, Hekkador and Father of the Therns, hid in the city of Kaol where their cult still had power.

The idea of the Holy Therns as a behind the scenes power cynically exploiting people and present at the beginning of the John Carter story was totally in character with the Therns' modus operandi. On the other hand it's unlikely there is going to be a race of Black Pirates (or the First Born), because Barsoom doesn't need two races of false gods.

At the same time, the Therns are able to shapeshift and have advanced science, something I wish they didn't have. The whole point of the Therns is that despite their claims of godhood, they are just a bunch of liars running a hustle and dodge on the entire rest of Barsoom; giving them superpowers kind of negates that idea.

The Therns here are totally bald, just like in the books. I missed the humanizing touch of vanity they had where they wore elaborate blonde wigs to disguise their baldness.

Making the Therns major baddies gives the movie a strong central villain, something not in the original novel, and more closely ties the Edgar Rice Burroughs finds the journal frame story into the rest of it. I'd count that as a success.

Zodanga is now a "predator city" on legs able to move around. I have to give the writers credit for this. It's the most Burroughs-esque idea Burroughs never had a colorful, exotic and improbable locale. And it led to a great flying scene that was the most successful use of 3-D in the movie.

I wish all I could do is just talk about the John Carter of Mars movie, but unfortunately movies don't happen in a vacuum.

A lot of Paleolithic movie critics and entertainment reporters raised in the days before nerds took over the world deeply resent the sudden dominance of genre fiction in pop culture and hate writing about science fiction, comic books, pulp novels and video games. Even so, the sheer disproportionate, fanged viciousness directed toward "John Carter" is shocking.

Because they hate writing about nerd stuff, many entertainment reporters take a jeering, cowardly, jackal-like glee in tearing down a member of the herd that looks weak and limping. Nobody can be crueler than the cowardly, thwarted, and passive-aggressive.

This is why I don't listen to people who say science fiction or the superhero movie "is dead." They write that not because they think it's true, but because they desperately wish it was.

The effect of all the rooting for John Carter to fail and pronouncing it a dead on arrival bomb leaves me angry, hurt and heartsick. Imagine there's this book series you've loved for a lifetime. Imagine there's a movie version coming out, and before it's even released, it's proclaimed a derivative waste nobody will like, with source material forgotten by time nobody remembers or cares about anymore. Taking a risk on believing in something you love is seen as a laughably foolhardy misstep that the studio in question will be punished for doing.

How do you respond to the jeering masses who think of something you love and believe in, as an irresponsible disaster bigger than Ishtar and Dune put together, one that the people of the world will reject? All of which are independent of the quality of the movie itself. It makes me angry just thinking about the injustice of it.

As for the quality of the movie? Definitely worth seeing. After all, John Carter of Mars adaptations don't come along every year  - or every hundred years.