Sunday, June 10, 2012

John Carter and A Princess of Mars

This movie might as well have been called "Don't Go See This. You Don't Even Know What It's About. It's Just More CGI Crap." for all the marketing campaign did for it.

And that's tragic.

This is a really, really good movie. Almost great.

It's a bit long. But that works because it's epic in scope.

Despite the material having been plundered over a century (from the original), John Carter feels amazingly fresh. From the story A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs first book in his Barsoom series, the story is that of a former confederate soldier who ends up on Mars, and in the middle of a planetary civil war.

Because of the lesser gravity—and pre-dating Superman by 20 years—Carter is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and able to withstand what is, in Martian terms, tremendous damage. Circumstances arising from his super-strength result in him becoming an accidental hero of the barbarous six-limbed Tharks.

The Tharks are occasional players in the Martian civil war, which primarily concerns the efforts of the jerky Sab Thon to conquer Mars, a task in which he is aided by the creepy Thern, a super-advanced race who manipulate Martian life to their liking.

The Thern have managed to coerce a wedding of Sab Thon to the titular Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, who is, like, totally not interested. Also, she soon develops a thing for the super-Martian John Carter.

Classic pulp, which while it includes elements of the first three Barsoom novels, is very true to the Burroughs spirit.

I was prepared to be bored. I figured there'd be a lot of cheesy CGI—the commercials really make it look generic. But the CGI is as close to flawless as I've ever seen. (Though we'll see if it holds up.)

Well, look, The Boy loved it. And he hates this kind of crap. The Flower, too.

I expect critics to hate this kind of story. They hated the novels—everything Burroughs ever wrote, really. (I lived next door to Tarzana growing up and it was commonly said that you couldn't find a Tarzan book at the Tarzana library.) As for audiences, there are a lot of reasons why this wouldn't catch fire.

  • The marketing is awful. The title says nothing—means nothing to most people these days. The trailers were boring and murky and put the focus on some not very interesting special effects.
Well, I won't dwell on this point much more except to say The Flower came up with the title mentioned here ("John Carter and a Princess of Mars"), which we think would have been a more interesting title. ("John Carter? You mean that doctor from 'E.R.'? Wait, is this about that 'Falling Skies' show?")

I nearly had to drag the kids to see this.

  • The movie had a rep before it came out. It was expensive. People love to see expensive things fail. For example, Ishtar was not, on the merits, utterly flopworthy. Worthy of a tepid reception? Sure. But a great big heaping helping of schadenfreude can drag a film down.
I think a lot of people are blindingly envious of Pixar's success and chortle in glee at any mis-step by the studio or its talent. I have no doubt that many eager to see Director Andrew Stanton (A Bug's Life, Wall-E, Finding Nemo) fail spread some poison about this.

There was so much talk of Stanton reshooting scenes, as if he were unaware of the difference between an animated feature and a live action one, it strains credibility. But you know what? The cinematography in this movie is flawless.
  • It doesn't try to be cool. This is an old school swashbuckling adventure, and even Carter's jaundiced view of war ultimately gives way to the fact that there are good guys and they are worth fighting for.

The last is sad but it's true that Burroughs' stories were square before I was born, and our love of "cool"—dispassionate, uninvolved, apathetic, anti-enthusiasm "cool" has only grown since then, at least in some circles.

I suppose it's possible that people looked at a lot of this stuff and said, "Eh. Saw it in Star Wars." but I find that a little hard to believe. These movies have no Jar Jar. There is a story, and character development and all the other things that go into making a good movie.

So, why would I hesitate to call it "great"? I'm not entirely sure. The pacing may be a little off. It's kind of breakneck. Some people complained about the non-action scenes but I thought they had a real depth and kind of naturalness we didn't get in Star Wars. I suspect because the people making it were familiar with all eleven books in the series.

I know that I won't hesitate to watch it again more closely.


  1. We watched it on-demand this weekend (We= Me, Wife and three daughters from 15-10 years old) and we liked it.

    I have read a fair amount of ERB novels--even some of the Mars ones, though not the ones that this movie was based upon. The combination of swords, spears and high technology worked very well. I did wonder a bit about the sexual compatibility of Dejah Thoris and John Carter, given the blue blood of Martians. Also, I liked how, true to pretty much all of ERB's work, there is no "evil" race. Each has its good and bad individuals and the society as a whole (even if they are green and have 4 arms) has a code of conduct.

    One thing that bothered me about this movie as well as most action films for the past few years is the sound editing: Music and other sounds drown-out dialogue and I can't tell what anybody is saying.

  2. Sometimes the sound mix is WAY off. It wasn't bad in the theater though, which I think means they screwed up the mixdown to stereo OR your sound setup sucks. But it happens a lot, I agree.

    I've read all the Tarzan books but the only Barsoom novel I read was #9, "The Synthetic Men of Mars"--in which ERB predicts freeways.

    And, very true about race. I'm not sure if his position "evolved" but by the end of the series, Tarzan's only (near) equal are in the black tribe that protects his African estate. He apparently had respect for all (real) races, too, except the dirty Arabs...


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