Sunday, March 11, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: John Carter (of Mars)

Disney won't call the movie by a decent title, so I will.  Let us call it John Carter of Mars, shall we?

As pointed out recently by The Alamo Drafthouse, the Summer of 1982 was an absolutely stunning summer for movies and culturally defining watershed for Gen X.  To celebrate this fact, Summer of 2012, they're having a Summer of 1982 celebration showing a movie per week from that year.

Not all of the movies were a smash at the time (see the final show of the summer, Blade Runner), but this was also the generation of the VCR and HBO.  I didn't see Blade Runner until 1988 or so, but I know when it was released (and you can bet I'll be fighting tooth and nail to be at the screening at the Alamo this summer).

So I'm going to start using Summer of 1982 as a sort of yardmarker for a movie I think could hold a certain distinction.

1.  The movie isn't being loved by critics who are failing to understand it at the time
2.  It likely won't be understood by the mainstream audience at the time
3.  The movie tries to be something grand, really swings for the fences
4.  The movie has the potential to endure in a way that surpasses just the nichey fans you can find anywhere on the internet, but becomes part of the sci-fi geek zeitgeist

Straight up, I @#$%ing loved John Carter (2012).  I believe that it is Summer of 1982 worthy.

You know, this is kind of a terrible poster

The movie is based not just upon the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, A Princess of Mars (1917), but on what I'd guess are a few of the Barsoom/ John Carter novels sort of pulped into a single volume.  That the movie was not just the first book is all right.  The story works well enough and moves at a better pace for the kids that were packed in all around us in the audience at the Alamo.

The movie of John Carter follows Carter (played more than ably by Friday Night Lights alum Taylor Kitsch) as a Virginia gentleman who, more than a decade after the Civil War, makes a hasty call for his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, to come to him.  By the time Burrows arrives, Carter is dead, sealed in a tomb which can only be opened... from the inside.


Carter has left Burroughs a journal which explains how, while hiding from Apaches, he stumbled onto a cave and was from there transported to Mars by mysterious means.  On Mars, Carter must adapt, even as he finds himself among 15 foot green men with four arms and a penchant for barbarism.  From there, he stumbles into a multi-sided conflict that includes the Red Men of Mars, The Tharks (or Green Men) and a mysterious, pale race of men seeking to control the fate of the planet.

I won't bother to discuss where the books differs from the novel in detail as that would quickly become tiresome and because I've only read the first installment (I'm currently re-reading it, and I like it even better on a second read).  I gave up wishing the movie had revealed certain elements in the order in which they appeared in the book, including Dejah Thoris, the actual Princess of Mars for whom the original John Carter book is named.

It's like they photoshopped his head onto my body...
Dejah Thoris is played by Lynn Collins,* someone relatively new to the movie screen, but who takes to the role of Dejah Thoris (a character strong enough that anyone who has read any of the novels might might have a pretty good idea what they'd like to see as far as an iron-willed space warrior scientist princess goes), and runs with it.  As in the book, Thoris is a scholar of the City of Helium, and has the edge of her Martian (and therefore brutal in their own way) people.  The "this woman can stand on her own two feet and fight" bit is treated more as a matter of course and with the surprise of a 19th Century Virginia Gentleman than it may have been played for laughs in other movies even in recent movie memory.  If you're worried about your daughters emulating a Disney Princess, this one is probably okay.

A special note:  Yes, in the books everybody walks around naked except for "gold ornaments".  This is a family movie, people.  No naked Dejah Thoris here.  Nor any naked Taylor Kitsch, if that's more your speed.

The Tharks of the movie, especially Sola, Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus all play pretty darn well.  Its darn good, state-of-the-art CG, but, honestly, there's one or two shots where they look suspiciously like the grasshoppers from A Bug's Life.  Its still not a perfect technology.  As far as the look goes, I've seen all sorts of depictions of Tharks, and I think this one ranked up there with the most anatomically sensible while sticking to the basic descriptions Burroughs put down in his novel.   The movie does temper a bit of Thark culture, glosses over the weaponry, cuisine, etc... of the book.  And that's all okay.  We don't need to know how a Storm Trooper's gun works, just that it does, I suppose.  And until the new movies, I didn't worry much about who was under the Storm Trooper helmets.

Your friendly green men from Barsoom
I was curious if the movie made it as plain as the novel that the citizens of Mars know that they live on the face of a planet that's on the downward slide.  I think the script made it clear - these are the last millenia for Mars and everyone knows it (what they don't add is that Martians tend to live hundreds of years and birthrates are low).  It adds a certainly layer of gloom to the first novel, but never does Burroughs get as heavy or soul-crushing as you find in Lord of the Rings, pretty much from the formation of the Fellowship onward.  He was writing adventure tales, not a 1000 page march.

And the movie keeps that light touch, while refusing to go tongue in cheek or too camp.  At some point a movie has to dedicate itself and believe in its story and world or you wind up with the cringe-inducing movies of the 1990's like The Phantom or the 00's, like Van Helsing, where its too many winks and nods, too much artifice to the actual story in the service of FX, stunts and a sort of hand-waving that there's a movie happening here, and anything that might resonate about story and character gets abandoned on the way.

While I do think the movie builds sympathy for at least Carter, this IS a straight up adventure movie, maybe the like we haven't seen in a generation.  I half wonder what today's kids and even the 20-somethings will say about a film that raises stakes without just a bomb ticking, that has a wide cast of characters, a fish out of water hero, and, as someone very smart said online "a hero who isn't just cleaning up his own messes".**

If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son
(ah, you know the rest)

Cyncially, you can step back, forget these are Green and Red Martians and consider Burroughs' world of 1912 and the subtext inherent in Tarzan as well.  Its an odd mix of White Man's Burden and the Dances With Wolves/ Last Samurai Syndrome - in which the new guys becomes the BEST Indian/ Japanese fighter, etc...  But I think the movie fights hard to make it clear that Carter has clearly got some natural advantages with his Earthman's body on Mars with enhanced strength, etc...  I dunno.  We can argue the White Man's Burden Theme, but I think they pad that as well as you can without abandoning the source material altogether.  I do think there's a difference in the fictional culture and worlds established by Burroughs and what Carter brings to the table and the somewhat patronizing mix of helper/ we-wouldn't-have-this-problem-if-you-weren't-here issues in something like Avatar.  Instead, Carter appears as a wild card in a world where behaviors are so certain that he can be a true catalyst for change for the first time thousands of years.

I got your Disney Princess right here

As an Adventure Movie, it features lots of sword play, buckles are swashed, unlikely friendships are made, wises are cracked, rifles and pistols get fired (our hero remains mostly unstabbed and unshot), and we see big, scary beasts in arenas.  It also features amazing ruins, cityscapes, armor, flying ships, flying rocketsleds, strange technology and more sci-fi-ness than you can shake a stick at.

Look, reviews for this movie are not going to be good by a lot of critics.  That's the nature of the beast when you're dealing with a story that doesn't give critics all the moorings of a nice, familiar human drama.  This is the sci-fi that weirded out the other kids in middle school, and you didn't care if anyone knew you were into it because you knew they'd catch up sooner or later, and in a few years, I think they will.

Its the sort of thing that was exactly why, in 1982, you went to the movies.  Its open-eyed "holy gosh gee whiz" action adventure of the highest calibre, so take off your smug little smirk, stop patting yourself on the back for all the Oscar nominees you saw and all the Pure Sci-Fi you stick to.  Go see a Sci-Fi movie in which the lead is not a stuttering idiot or nerd who has made good.  See one where the hero can crack skulls from the first scene and try to remember that sometimes you don't need the lead to be @#$%ing Shia LeBouf so you can sympathize with his plight.

And sometimes, you just have to end up in a scene that's clearly a tribute to a Frazetta-style painting and a whole lot of rampaging Martians are going to lose limbs today.

Recommended.


*I may have met Lynn Collins circa 1993.  I'm seeking confirmation.  It seems she was a graduate of Klein High School, a neighboring school, I think class of 1995.  KHS had a very serious drama department (they also produced actor Matt Bomer), and we were friendly with that batch of kids, especially in Spring of 1993.  Anyway, I don't remember her, and there's no way in bloody hell she'd remember me.
**I think I attribute that to @StuartSWard


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