Friday, March 9, 2012

Here Cinema Siren goes again, going against the critical masses. I love John Carter. While it groans under the pressure of its need for exposition, it is an exotic and thrilling space tale that embraces it’s awkward hugeness with such a sense of fun and excitement, I, along with much of the audience, couldn’t help becoming invested in it and walking out grinning.

On the other hand, I love Comic Con, Superheroes, Star Wars and great big exciting space operas…
If you are like many, you’ve seen the crazy previews for the new and famously expensive Disney release John Carter and asked yourself, “What the heck is this movie about?” or “Don’t we already have a Conan the Barbarian?” or “Didn’t Cowboys and Aliens already come out?” Well let me elucidate and clear up some of the confusion.

The story is of an emotionally wrecked civil war vet who, while being chased through Western territory by both soldiers and Indians, stumbles into a cave and is mysteriously transported to the planet Barsoom (otherwise known as Mars). There he encounters an alien race of green Martians called Tharks, (including a chief or “jeddak” named Tars Tarkas, played by Willam Defoe) a beautiful princess and scientist named Dejah, and assorted bad guys trying to take over the city-state of Helium along with the whole planet of Barsoom.

The movie shows Carter’s struggle between staying the neutral pacifist his wartime losses have made him, and choosing to help his new Thark friends, Dejah, and the people of Helium, with the greatly increased strength and power the reduced gravity of Barsoom affords him. His inner turmoil, as well as his courage and determination, make him a compelling action sci-fi character around which to potentially build a new franchise. New? If this plot sounds like a mishmash of lots of classic sci-fi stories, there’s a reason for that.

John Carter is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first novel, 1917’s The Princess of Mars, the first in a set of 11 books in a series which predates Tarzan.

Aspects of the stories inspired Superman, Flash Gordon, The Martian Chronicles, Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. A host of 20th century science fiction writers including Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, filmmakers James Cameron (who mentioned the series’ influence on Avatar in a New Yorker interview) George Lucas, and scientist Carl Sagan credit these stories as major childhood influences that inspired them to write or seek important scientific answers. In fact, the popularity of this series helped fuel interest in a space program.

Did the naysayers calling it derivative do their homework and realize just how closely it followed the original novel, or how many future works of fiction that novel spawned? Its influence alone should create curiosity or motivation in you to see an incarnation on film. Many attempts at making it have been started and aborted over the last 100 years, most recently by a pre-Cowboys vs. Aliens Jon Favreau. Finally Oscar winning director and writer Andrew Stanton of Wall-E and Finding Nemo fame took up the considerable gauntlet, both directing it as his first live action effort, and co-writing the screenplay.

As to the best aspects of John Carter, it is first and foremost a joy to watch visually. The production design and set decoration, as well as the prop and costume making are a thing of beauty. On Barsoom, the various contraptions for flying, the creatures, and the architecture all come together in an inventive mix of steampunk, old school sci-fi, and modern tech to create a cohesive fantasy world.

The acting by the leads is better than I would have expected, especially given how pretty they are. Taylor Kitsch as John Carter plays tortured and war weary well, but adds comic relief as scripted, and looks tasty in his (minimal) “swords and sandals” costume. Lynn Collins is a feisty handful and believable as both princess and scientist, although her chest is featured in such gravity defying prominence it should have its own billing. The dependable Ciaran Hinds (as Dejah’s dad and ruler of Helium) and Willem Dafoe (as Tars Tarkas) are good as always, and add a respectable weight to the cast.

There are definite trouble spots. There is too much exposition, clearly an attempt to take us fully into the complicated world Borroughs constructed for his original book series. The human characters are less interesting than the multi-armed aliens. Some of the villainy represented (including Mark Strong) are a bit too inexplicably aloof for their motivations to be understood and reviled. Parts of the romance seems a bit tacked on, no doubt in an attempt to fit so much into the proceedings. Gratefully, all these lesser bits get lost if you invest, like I did, in what the filmmakers have built.

Ultimately, enjoyment of this movie depends, as it so often does with sci-fi, on complete submersion in the created world, with complete suspension of disbelief. The script has way more depth than the usual phoned-in sci-fi, as exampled in one sequence by visual references of John Carter’s haunted past being juxtaposed with current battle scenes. At the same time it’s more fun than I’ve had in a blockbuster sci-fi flick in a long time-one doglike creature that takes a liking to John is instantly lovable and memorable. The flying sequences are very exciting. I will say I’m not sure they would have been any less thrilling in 2D.

Go and make up your own mind about whether Stanton did enough with this classic that it warrants more than one film in the series. I walked out of this one wishing they were already making the next one. I’m a proud sci-fi geek and happy I found another movie to enjoy.

I’ve yet to find one of us that didn’t enjoy John Carter. Are you one of us? If you are, put down your comic book, or your light saber, or ape mask or NASA app and celebrate why those things exist by seeing the movie based on what started it all. It’s the least we can do.