11 March 2012

"John Carter"

John Carter
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston with Thomas Hayden Church and Willem Dafoe
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon
Based on the story A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Date of Screening: 10 March 2012

A friend of mine began exploring Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Barsoom" series a few years ago and he lured me to the red planet with him. I've restricted myself to one novel annually, as I did with Ian Fleming's Bond novels (though I didn't get to one last year large because of the problems I had concentrating). Suffice it to say, he and I have enthusiastically followed the spattering of announcements related to the film's production. We were both excited to hear that Andrew Stanton, one of the brightest stars in the Pixar constellation, would be responsible for realizing the nearly-century old novel. In the last month or so, I've been following Stanton on Twitter and have been really excited to discover just how passionate he's been for this project. The guy loves him some Barsoom, and it's that kind of devotion that all meaningful work requires--be it in film or anything else.

We took in an afternoon showing of John Carter at Tinseltown and I brought along my 16 year old nephew. He hasn't read any of the books. Reading's not his bag, and it's a battle I am sadly never going to win. Still, I think we represented a nice cross-section of the film's likeliest audience: my friend and I, older viewers familiar with the source material and my nephew a younger viewer wholly uninformed about the film's place in the mythology or even among film.

For the uninitiated, Confederate veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is transported to Barsoom (Mars) and becomes reluctantly entangled in a war between two factions of Red Men. Carter discovers that his physiology has reacted to the different gravity of Mars by becoming capable of dramatic physical feats such as jumping, throwing and fighting. It may sound familiar, but remember that A Princess of Mars was published a quarter of a century before Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1!

In fact, this brings me to one of two complaints about John Carter and it's as unfortunate as it is unfair. There has been a lot of confusion from potential viewers that this is some kind of original production, emulating Star Wars and other modern-era sci-fi films and franchises. There's an obvious Cowboys & Aliens thing, for instance, and that connotation is especially unfortunate since I seem to be one of maybe seventeen people in the world who actually liked that movie.

The issue is that the entire genre has stolen from Burroughs for a century. A young woman tweeted to me this evening:
That's about the most common reaction I've encountered to the underwhelming ad campaign. It's an indictment of how poorly read today's movie-goers are. It's especially egregious because science-fiction fans used to be among the best-read of any audience. There was a time when watching and loving Star Wars meant you were on track to explore Asimov, Bradbury and, yes, Burroughs. Now, it means immersing oneself in the glorified fan fiction of Star Wars novels and comics. Fans are content to become the best informed fans of Star Wars than to grow as fans of the genre. John Carter is the most shameful victim of this devolution.

My other criticism of the film is one best articulated by my friend. We understand why Stanton restructured some things to introduce in this film story elements that emerged in subsequent novels but were not in A Princess of Mars. His choices make sense to us. Yet, we feel they came at the expense of some of the more interesting elements of the novel. Specifically, we would have loved to have explored Thark culture as it was in the novel. There, Carter spends quite some time held captive and has to fight his way out of bondage and into a position of respect. Each victory brings him more respect and the mythology of John Carter begins to grow. He also gets to claim the possessions and prestige of each Thark he bests, which is absent entirely in Stanton's Thark culture.

Still, it was terrific fun to finally see a lot of these things realized on the big screen. I loved Woola, and while his cinematic incarnation bears no resemblance to the one I've had in my mind for the last few years, I delighted in every moment he was on screen (including one moment of him going into battle that made me feel uncomfortable because I laughed at that image in the middle of an otherwise very somber sequence). There is a great sense of humor to the film; we laughed throughout. One of the hallmarks of the novels is that Burroughs constantly reminds us that John Carter is renowned for being a ferocious fighter. Stanton explains this to us early in the film as Captain Powell (Bryan Cranston) is interrupted several times just in the course of trying to have an expository conversation meant to tell us who the titular protagonist is. Each interruption yields greater efforts to curtail Carter's spitfire nature, and it works very well.

I saw a remark online somewhere recently that noted that Stanton was clearly informed on how to present this story by David Lean, and having seen it now I entirely understand that characterization. No wonder; Stanton himself often makes known that his favorite film of all time is Lawrence of Arabia. It shows in John Carter. In fact, I believe Michael Giacchino's terrific score pays tribute to the work of Maurice Jarre; it is sweeping and grand, without being cartoonish. He's quickly established himself as one of this era's A composers.

Fans accustomed to "grittier" sci-fi outings may scoff at John Carter for its relative simplicity. For those who still enjoy an old-fashioned fairy tale about star-crossed lovers and one man making a difference, however, John Carter is a great cinematic outing. My friend, my nephew and I all left the theater happy. That's the best that we could ask of any film.

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