Sunday, June 9, 2024

Mars Watch (Revisited): John Carter (2012)

Watched:  06/08/2024
Format:  BluRay
Viewing:  I've lost track.  5th?
Director:  Andrew Stanton
Selection:  Joint household

You can see prior posts on John Carter books and movies here.

Back in 2012 when this movie came out, I'd read the novel A Princess of Mars at least twice.  It's a breezy, fun read, the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars/ Barsoom novels.  If you can get past some very not-21st Century politics and concepts, they're an interesting read, and I recommend.

Those books were almost 100 years old when the movie was released, so, suffice to say, folks have enjoyed them for a while.  And there's something to be said for any novels that last a century, and double that appreciation when it comes to any genre material that manages to last beyond a few decades.  There's something there.   So it came as a bit of a surprise to me at the time that this movie got the critical lambasting it received, currently residing at a 51 on Metacritic.   And most of the folks who saw it at the time told me "oh, I hated that."  

Look, your faithful blogger has just enough ego to assume it's everyone else who is wrong sometimes, but this was a case where I said "ah, well, it's working for me.  I dunno." and moved on with my life.

But, to be truthful, it's been quite some time since I re-watched this movie or read that first novel, and with some separation, I now more or less get why this movie got the reaction it did.  And TheWrap put out a fascinating history of the film, that I consider good reading.    

To be blunt, I was familiar enough with the book that the movie was just seeing portions of the book come to life, and knowing there were many more books, I thought they were just moving things forward in order to make a more seamless narrative.  


There's essentially two large problems with the movie in my mind at this point -

1) The filmmakers decided to add/ change a lot of things from the book to the movie in order to make the story push the buttons that were du jour in 2009 or so.  This ranged from adding a tragic backstory for John Carter that raises more questions than it answers, to pretty much everything about the Therns/ Mark Strong's character and his friends.

Like, the Therns are absolutely in the book, but they aren't super wizards, for example.  The 9th ray is part of the books, but is not a super laser.  There's no teleportation device in the book - it's unclear how Carter moves to Mars.  And probably 5 - 10 more things, but you get the idea.

It's just kind of weird.  Because it fundamentally changes the focus of the movie away from the stuff that makes the book work - a straightforward narrative of discovery and action - in favor of more generic sci-fi stuff (lasers/ nanotechnology) and conspiracy stories.  And it just bogs everything down with too much plot instead of letting the stuff from the book breathe.  Which leads to...

2)  Only occasionally is the stuff from the book treated as the interesting bit.  

Look, the first John Carter book is largely him sorting out his experience while also applying his bravado to the cruel and alien world into which he'd been transported.  "Well, hell, now there's an eight legged horse thing" then "what the hell is one's 'metal'?" and all the cultural import that would come from that.  

Like, none of the concepts are hard, but the final film we get of John Carter does nothing to help the audience that doesn't already know what is happening. Sure, I get irritated when a movie treats the audience like idiots, but showing interesting things and explaining things to the audience just a bit can and should happen when most of this is super straightforward.  Instead of adding lasers and conspiracies, why not a line about what one's "metal" is and means?  We aren't getting anyone's narration here and could use the help.

It feels like Stanton, Chabon, etc... who wrote the film got so lost in the new things they'd added (and removed and changed) they forgot that the original book lasted 95 years without a lot of help.

Some of the changes were necessary, or, at least, work without fundamentally changing the story.  Dejah Thoris as scientifically-minded academic totally makes sense and everything that happens in the book can happen with that being added.  Dejah Thoris as a capable sword-fighter absolutely makes sense if you're a fighting people - and because John Carter is a super-man, it makes sense he still can protect her against a horde.  I love that we have fighting women of Helium as well as fighting men.  

But those are meaningful changes that don't strangle what you need to do to bring people to an alien world and make them love it, the way Burroughs has done for generations.  And I just don't think the movie remembers that this is a Planetary Romance, and therefore the job is to show why Dejah Thoris is a great idea and worth fighting for, bungled up in the add-in material.

Among other issues, and well documented in that TheWrap article, is that director/ writer Andrew Stanton kept trying to write the story during production, using the methods common to Disney and Pixar animation.  

The movie starts four times, and that's an editing and story problem that seems to have come from Stanton being in love with too many ideas.  The movie needed to start with the framing bit with Ned and Jack or it needs to start with Carter in Arizona.  I'd even argue, if you want to go full space opera, start on Dejah Thoris' set up for Barsoom (but use the deleted scene cut).  But, yeah, if the movie is about an Earth man coming to Mars, start on Earth.  It does not need to start on Space McNulty and Mark Strong teaming up.

If Burroughs knew how to do a thing, it was start no earlier than absolutely necessary, and get our before the story is even done (cliffhangers!).  Recognizing that as part of the appeal of Burroughs' work is probably key.

Tonally, I think they also needed to figure out how to inject the movie with the same self-seriousness of the Lord of the Rings movies.  It always feels like it's on the edge of winking, which is understandable if you read the novels - because as a reader it feels ridiculous, even as you say "okay, but what happens next?" 

I don't hate the movie or even dislike it now.  But I am glad to rewatch it and see what probably was off-putting to audiences.  

What is clear is that the team put a lot of effort into this movie, and that included the human and non-human stars.  It's absolute nonsense that this movie hurt the careers of Taylor Kitsch or Lynn Collins.  It didn't need to win them awards, but it did show they were capable of carrying a major movie (maybe even more Collins than Kitsch).  But someone had to take the blame, and it's usually the stars of a movie rather than the producers absolutely fucking up.

I was listening to the audio commentary on the BluRay for a bit, and there's almost this assumption that they're talking about a wildly successful movie that just happened to come together.  It's mind-bending that they even released this how they did, which was clearly recorded shortly after they locked the picture, believing this had all ended up great, rather than one of the most notorious bombs in recent movie history.  

In that commentary, they frequently joke about how they didn't know what they were doing and the wonder of shooting live action instead of making animation, but no one talks about why they changed what they changed or even what story they're trying to tell.  In short - this movie probably needed a producer on it who was going to wrangle the creatives, and it sounds like the one they got was mostly just happy to be there (she even makes a mistake in the first fifteen minutes that indicates she never read the books, which...  ma'am, audiobooks and a commute could solve that inside a week.)

Look, marketing for this movie was a disaster, and the article goes into some of what went wrong.  Personally, I think Disney needed to make a lot of noise about "this is Edgar Rice Burroughs, this story is 100 years old and is why you have Star Wars and Superman", and instead they let critics describe this movie as derivative.  Because why not let irony take down your film.  The name was... bad?  And why wasn't Lynn Collins pushed to the forefront of the marketing?  I have no idea.  All I know is that the movie absolutely tanked.  

That poster up top is the only good shot we get of a Thoat (more on Point 2 from above) and the actual Princess of Mars is back there, out of focus.  Like... why?  Who did that?

Like I say, I still like the movie, as flawed as it is.  It does a lot of fun things, and mostly at least *feels* like the novels.  

My thinking now is:  9 - 12 one hour episodes and knock out the first three novels.  It's an expensive TV show.  You get rid of all the extraneous nonsense added in here, get back to basics, get rid of the stuff that doesn't fly in 2024 while keeping some of it that you can make into a culture Carter finds ugly or alien, and you lean into it, Game of Thrones style.  Not that it's Rated-R for boobs - we can avoid that to an extent.  But in that:  these books are about a guy who loves fighting finding a place where that's valued, and even he'd freaked out by how violent this culture is, and how it can be better.

Also, if Dejah Thoris isn't wearing an elaborate tiara or face/cheek-shield, you're missing out.


Steven said...

It's not great, but it's certainly not awful. There was no lack of cash spent on talent, sets, or CGI.

The League said...

This was really one of the movies where I witnessed the destruction of the movie's reputation in real time before it had ever been released. Sometimes there's just a feeding frenzy for reviewers, and I'll argue this was one of those. It's probably a B or B- on the letter-grade scale, and didn't quite deserve the lambasting it got. But I think now is the time to start thinking about how a producer would try again.