Saturday, March 10, 2012

My Trip to Barsoom (John Carter mini review)

Okay, just got back from seeing John Carter and....I loved it. Seriously, it's been a while since I've had that "great movie" afterglow leaving the theater. The visuals are so striking and the ending was masterfully rendered to a satisfying conclusion--even though it's set up to obviously continue.

I'd like to answer a few questions about some elements that have been on the minds of geeks who are both die-hard Burroughs' fans and/or indifferent and think it's Prince of Persia 2.

Hopefully, there's a message here, too, for anyone who's "meh" or "no way" about seeing it. GO. Give it a chance. It's better than any of the commercials give it credit for and it's well worth $10.50--more so than most other action films I've seen recently. It's a popcorn chomping, brawl of movie--with some brilliant character and story touches.

If this is enough for you and you don't need any further build up to go see it, then by all means, stop reading right now.

If you're still skeptical and don't care to have a little bit spoiled (and don't mind a bit of cheerleading!) then continue. Now, on to the questions....

Was it faithful to the book, A Princess of Mars or the other John Carter books?
When it needed to be yes. As a film, the story was great, and all the changes that Andrew Stanton and Michael Chabon made were improvements. I can say that, without reservation. Some of the relationships between some key Thark tribe members are different from the book but the alterations serve the characters quite well indeed. Personally, I'm not someone who believes films should be on-screen translations of their source material. I think they should live and breathe on their own.

So if you wanted a literal translation from the book...well...just shut-up and give it a shot anyway. If you love the book, the filmmakers give you plenty of "nods" in the dialogue to ease any agony.

UPDATE: After a second viewing, I don't think Stanton had too many arbitrary changes--that is nothing was modified purely at the filmmaker's whim. I won't say it's completely unencumbered or that artistic license (especially in production design of Zodanga) isn't taken. But at least all the source material for the story itself comes from Burroughs and it's a satisfying amalgam of the Carter mythology through Stanton's particular lens.

How were John Carter and Dejah Thoris?
Tim Riggins--er, Taylor Kitsch was good. He was (I surmise) hired for his brooding looks and barbarian-like physique. He was serviceable in the role. The one missive was a lack of cool Southern gentility that's woven into his literary counterpart. Other than that, he slices and dices bad guys quite well.

Dejah was another matter entirely. I REALLY like what they did with her character. She had a better reason for being in the story than the MacGuffin mentioned in the book's title. Dejah's a role model for young girls as far as intellect, athleticism, and heart. This is due in large part to the talent of Lynn Collins, who in many ways, lifts the entire film. Often times, a poorly cast heroine can seem shrill and disengaging. Collins is the opposite, and enhances every interaction in which her character appears. Dejah could have easily been the film's kryptonite, but Collins (and Stanton, by design) have made her the film's heart.

UPDATE: Collins shines as Dejah Thoris and Kitsch is still pretty good.

How about the Tharks? Believable?
Tars Tarkas, Sola, Tal Hajus, Sarkoja, et. al. were each wonderfully realized in both on-screen presence and in their respective story lines. There's no Jar Jar moment in any of their articulation on screen. Sarkoja and Tal play their parts as plot devices, a sacrifice well worth the added mileage we get out of Tars' and Sola's stories--again to the benefit of the film. The biggest disappointment is that Disney decided not to market any freakin' action figures for what's possibly the most expensive film they've made yet. So I'm denied the joy of having an army of Tharks on my desk at work to intimidate my coworkers. THIS IS A TRAVESTY. Moving on...

How was the art direction/environment, etc.? I remember the first trailer looked too much like Utah!
This is without a doubt Barsoom. It's an alien world all right--with a hint of similarity to Earth to make it believable that it's our neighbor and not a planet from Star Wars. In each setting, be it wilderness, ruins, airships, or urban--there's a distinct, exotic and believable sensation. Any fears about it not being so, are completely unfounded.

UPDATE: Many of the "natural" locations that a few reviewers have mentioned "still look like Utah" are actually not natural at all--they're ruined parts of ancient Barsoom that have been weathered by time and war. Many of the ruins have begun to take on a more geologic appearance after so much abuse and neglect.

UPDATE: Should I see it in 3D?
I've seen the movie twice now: first in plain 'ol 2D and in then a week later in RealD 3D. I'm not a 3D fanatic, but I did enjoy experiencing Avatar when it was released since it was shot with an innovative 3D camera system developed by James Cameron. This film does not use that technology--it's just digitally projected 3D which doesn't do anything to enhance the film. So if you're seeing it on a weekend or matinee, go for it. Otherwise, save some cash and see it the way Mother Nature intended.

What about the film's faults? You're just a big ol' Pollyanna!
Fair enough. The film does have flaws--it's not a bat-out-of-the-park hit. But I'll be seeing it again and getting the DVD. There's really nothing else on this scale that looks as good. I'll concede that there are some weak spots, but the best parts shine bright enough to dispel any shade.

High points include: Carter's arrival on Mars, meeting Woola, a completely all-out barbaric battle featuring Carter in the middle of the film, and the last 10 minutes of the film. These were more than enough to win over my very reluctant wife, who admitted she was thinking of bailing before we ventured out to the show. In the end, what really got her on board was the same thing that gets all naysayers.

It's the thing no grouch can resist--that steal every show and stills the eye-rolls of many a jaded film-goer. It was....

...the dog. :)

Notable cameo to watch for:
Brian Cranston of Breaking Bad fame appears as Powell (literary Carter's mining partner) but in the film he's more of a foil.

Again, if you were thinking of skipping it, or waiting, I encourage you to go see it in theaters. See it as a matinee or a weekday. If enough people go, we might even have a shot at seeing where Stanton and company take the story next! As Disney fare goes it's far above what they usually deliver, and frankly far better than what they deserve, considering how they botched the marketing. Here's the fan-cut trailer that does a much better job of laying out the plot:

If you're looking for a rollicking, interplanetary adventure then gas up the thoat and just go see it already!


  1. Good review. I saw it last night and enjoyed it as well.

    1. Oh, I planned on seeing it the moment I heard the name "Stanton".

      Now, finding the time...that's the miracle needs to happen.

  2. The showing I went too turned out to be 3D. Don't bother. It's not bad or anything, but there's no point to it either. I can't see where it added anything. Hope this trend ends soon.

    And the jumping was silly, unless you just accept it as a superpower.

    I enjoyed it. However I don't remember the books (maybe I never read them), so don't know about faithfulness. Don't know if that will bother some people.

  3. Aside: this RPG "Mars" is sweet. You can see my review on DrivethruRPG.

  4. I agree with you 100%. I read the first book just weeks before the movie came out (I was completely unfamiliar...yeah, I know, a travesty) and I am completely a fan now. In the middle of the second book and I can say the movie is true to the spirit and heart of the books, and sadly, that will probably be its downfall. Modern audiences do not seem to enjoy blatant pulp in front of their eyes, they like to be fooled into thinking a pulp movie is really an action film. Honestly I do not get it.