Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter

Saw John Carter this weekend.  In fact, I saw it twice.  Given that A Princess of Mars is among my favorite books of all time (topped only by Lord of the Rings--which I "cheat" and count as a single book), it's hardly surprising that I dragged my wife in on Friday afternoon.  After we "vetted" it, we went back again with my younger boys (the older kids saw it separately with friends.)  Everyone loved it.  A few points:

• The soundtrack, which I already mentioned earlier last week, is beautiful.  It's got a touch of exoticness, great excitement, a stirring main theme, and a romantic theme with sweeping strings that are reminiscent of some classic John Barry soundtracks--in fact, I was particularly reminded of the soundtrack from High Road to China at more than one point.

• The production design and the scenery of the movie are phenomenal.  The only very minor complaint I have is that I was a bit distracted when I actually recognized a scenic element and kept thinking to myself, "hey, that's the Fisher Towers in the background!" instead of paying attention ot the action in the foreground.  Whoops.  Curiously, the "Arizona" part of the movie and the Barsoom part of the movies looked very similar, and were filmed in locations at the same place--southeastern Utah.  The credits reference the field office for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park and Blanding, UT.  There was obviously some digital grading and digital removal of a few plants and whatnot for the Mars scenes--but probably not all that much was needed, really.  Southeast Utah already looks an awful lot like Mars to begin with.

• Lynn Carter did a good job, but after being raised on Frazetta, Krenkel, Manchess and even Whelan versions of Dejah Thoris, there's really no way she could possibly have competed.  The same is largely true of Taylor Kitsch.  He was better than I thought in the role, but how could he possibly have been as good as the Frazetta painted version of the warlord in my head?  And although my kids joked about, "put some clothes on, geez!" costumes in the movie, to my mind, they were a bit more heavily clothed than I expected.  Heh.  Barsoom in my mind's eye is I guess as skimpily clad as the Frazetta versions of the characters too.  I never really expected that Frazetta type costumes would be at all practical, though.

• Yes, my wife did say that Dejah Thoris sounds like the name of a dinosaur.  So.  Wrong.  On the other hand, her favorite part of the movie was when Powell tried to give that speech to Carter and he kept fighting to escape every few seconds, so at least she appreciates the comedy inherent in senseless violence.  She's still a keeper, even if she makes fun of "the most beautiful woman in two worlds."

• The story changes--mostly the blending in of a number of elements from Gods of Mars along with two or three innovations that the script writers brought, actually worked fairly well, and I didn't find that they were as bothersome as I feared they would be.  Making Dejah Thoris a scientist/warrior instead of just a damsel in distress was expected and predicted (by me, anyway) so at least it wasn't too discordant.  Making the therns a parasitic eternal race that fed on the entropy of planets in destruction, and wandered from world to world was a bit odd, but it did actually serve to offer a somewhat plausible (or at least acceptable) explanation for how John Carter traveled to and from Mars in the first place--something that probably would not at all have flown as written in a movie made today.  And the notion of John Carter being "damaged goods" with a tragic backstory that he had to get over before he could care about Dejah Thoris or Barsoom or anyone else was a rather tired cliche, in my opinion, and suggests that nobody in Hollywood understands what a man is anymore.  But again; that's a bigger problem than this movie; given the constraints Hollywood writers seem to be operating under, they did a relatively decent job, I suppose.

• The marketing was abysmal.  Not only that, the title changes to the movie couldn't have helped.  And settling on John Carter without even any reference to Mars at all?  Huh?  As one reviewer joked--audiences who don't think it's about Noah Wiley's character from ER will probably think its about the president before Reagan.  Although I have to admit, I'd totally go see a movie called Jimmy Carter of Mars.

• Despite a disappointing opening weekend, it was actually better than predicted.  It looks like Disney already decided to write this movie off and didn't properly promote it.  Given the huge production budget (rumored to be $250 mil), a $100 mil opening weekend take--with only $30 mil of that domestic--it seems unlikely that the obvious set-up for a sequel will actually happen.  The movie also got mixed reviews, but appears to have gotten good word of mouth, which picked up the take in the later days of the weekend from what early estimates were predicting.  I know I personally know several people who saw it this weekend and not a one of them didn't love it.  The critics mostly didn't know what they were talking about (literally, in some cases.  One of them talked about the red men vs. white men metaphor of Zodanga vs. Helium--even though the freakin' dialogue in the movie itself refers to their war as red men vs. red men.  I rather thought the red uniforms of the Zodangans vs. the blue of the Heliumites was the more likely metaphor--although it's spoiled somewhat by the fact that the therns also dressed in blue.  Good thing, actually.)

• Some critics thought the barrage of foreign sounding names was a detriment.  Others were glad the movie wasn't "dumbed down" for them by removing them.  In general, the critics reactions--and I read quite a few reviews on Friday before going--were shockingly ignorant and insipid.  Maybe not terribly shocking--I've read critics for a long time now, after all--but because I know Barsoom quite well, I suppose I was a little shocked that the critics couldn't be bothered to spend ten minutes with Google or Wikipedia to do a bit of research before writing their articles which were going to be nationally syndicated and immortalize their ignorance for all time.  How does the proverb go?  "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

Anyway, unless you're an ERB purist who will see any deviation from the Holy Text of his original novels as a heresy, I can recommend this movie and encourage you to see it.  For that matter, I think it's important that genre fans come out in force, as much as possible, and spread the word through grassroots.  I'd love to see this movie become a sleeper hit.  As far as I'm concerned, it was better acted, had better dialogue and plot, and offered better spectacle than Avatar or Star Wars either one--yet unfortunately, it'll most likely be consigned to the bin of "vaguely similar expensive flops."  Hardly seems fair for a movie adaptation of the book that basically "started" science fiction as we know it.


Jack Badelaire said...

Wow. I actually just tore the film apart over at Tankards & Broadswords. Most of what you liked here I didn't have a problem with; my major complaint was the really poor adaptation.

I'm not an "ERB Purist", but I absolutely cannot stand when a studio changes or adds story elements that not only don't really need to be changed or added, but that take up so darn much Precious Screentime that other, perfectly awesome, material gets left out or ruined.

Joshua said...

But they didn't really take too much time. And I disagree that "mystical Apache cave" would have been a sufficiently clear motivation in today's movie. Heck, I always thought that the deus ex machina process of getting Carter to Mars in the first place was the book's weakest link. Having the Therns on earth, with their little amulet thingies, not only gave us a sufficiently acceptable answer to "how it call happened", but it also made Carter more sympathetic at the end where, instead of sitting around feeling sorry for himself for ten years, he's been out there actively looking for clues to Thern activity. I thought that change was well played, and it only took a couple minutes of screen time.

The Carter backstory with his family getting killed, on the other hand, was more socially motivated, I think. I believe that the authors of the screenplay felt that Carter being a Confederate veteran who then goes on to open the story up by shooting up some "wild Injuns" was feared to go over badly in today's more politically correct environment.

I also think that that was due to Hollywood types living in a bubble and fundamentally not understanding a lot of key elements of their market, but that's a much bigger question than I'm prepared to attempt to tackle at this point. I agree that that was unnecessary, but again--it didn't really distract from the story overly much.

In fact, given all the things that could have been done, it was obvious that the writers were trying to be fairly faithful to the source material and were actively fans of it.

Jack Badelaire said...

So we replace one deus ex machina plot point with another? The cave can be explained away easily enough - a natural alignment of the planets, perhaps. The problem is that it wastes so very much time in the movie (it really does, since the Iss trip and the explanation that preceeds it has to be at least 25 minutes that was purely invented for the film).

The Barsoom books have gone strong for almost a hundred years, and there's PLENTY of source material there. The key to adaptation is that if you're going to change or cut something out, you should be doing it to streamline the story, not make it more complex. There was no need for the Therns in this film, and their presence chews up a good 45+ minutes of the film. If you wanted to avoid the whole "what does he do when he goes back home", then simply ignore that and leave him on Mars, at least until the next film.

The arguments, however, are academic. This movie will be a financial catastrophe, and that'll be that.

Joshua said...

Wow, your count of the time spent on those elements is way out of whack with mine. If they removed those elements, I can't imagine it shortening the run time by more than ten minutes. Since as it was the film was more than ten minutes over two hours, it seems very unlikely that anything else would have been added in to replace it.