Tharks and Jeddaks and Zodangas, oh my! ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tharks and Jeddaks and Zodangas, oh my!

John Carter
My rating:

There's been a fair bit of angsting over this movie on the geek websites I frequent (io9 and ToplessRobot mostly), regarding its marketing campaign and title. I don't really have an opinion on the former; the trailers looked okay to me, although I admit the posters - especially the one above - are somewhat dull. But the title. The title, man. It was originally John Carter of Mars, and now it's just some dude's name? Just because Mars Needs Moms bombed, Disney's marketing team thinks any movie with the word "Mars" in it is box-office poison; never mind that it's based on a series of pulp novels that have been a seminal influence on sci-fi and fantasy for 100 years? All that aside, I was hoping the movie itself would silence the naysayers; it's Andrew Stanton's first live-action film, he of Pixar's A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E fame. TMBF is, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool Pixar fanboy, and the last time one of their directors made a live-action movie, the results were spectacular.

Unfortunately, Stanton's turn at the bat results in much less than a home run.

In 1881, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is informed of the death of his uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who has made him the sole heir of his estate. Reading through Carter's journal, Burroughs learns of a fantastic adventure that starts with Carter prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territories, discovering a mysterious cave, and being transported to an alien world that turns out to be Mars - or as its inhabitants call it, Barsoom. He falls in with a tribe of Tharks - giant, green-skinned, four-armed creatures led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and befriends a female named Sola (Samantha Morton). But his adventure truly begins when he meets Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess of the city of Helium that is at war with the rival city Zodanga and its warlord Sab Than (Dominic West). Because of Barsoom's lower gravity, he possesses superhuman strength and the ability to leap amazing heights, and Dejah pleads with the reluctant Carter to join her side in the war - a war that Helium is losing, due to Sab Than's use of a "Ninth Ray" weapon of immense destructive power. But Than is himself a mere pawn of the Therns, a group of immortal beings led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who has evil designs on Barsoom - and possibly Earth as well.

I'm going to coin the following rule of screenwriting, if it hasn't been coined already: if you're writing a movie about an ordinary person who is suddenly transported into an alien fantasy world, do not start your movie in that world. John Carter does, and it is an unwise decision. Right from the beginning, we are treated to Barsoom's fantastic vistas, the spectacular cities of Helium and Zodanga, and those gorgeous winged airships - but we also get a whole bunch of exposition about unfamiliar places and wars and people with weird-ass names, with no reason to care about any of it. And everything this scene tells us, we learn through the course of the plot later on anyway. It's an infuriatingly confusing way to start a movie, and it's a lot less than I expected from Stanton and his co-screenwriters Mark Andrews (another Pixar luminary) and Michael Chabon.

But after this prologue, things get much better as it settles down to actually telling its story. The first act unfolds in a pleasantly unhurried way as we are introduced to the framing story with Edgar Rice Burroughs (who in real life is, of course, the author of the John Carter novels, as well as creator of the much more cinematically famous Tarzan of the Apes), then Carter's adventures as a former Confederate cavalry officer with a tragic past, on to his instantaneous teleportation to Mars/Barsoom. And throughout his initial struggles with the lower gravity, and his first encounter with the Tharks, there's an effective and enjoyable sense of gradual discovery and wonder, that really befits the old-fashioned adventure vibe the film is going for. It also helps that there's a funny sight gag about Carter's constant attempts at escaping the U.S. army officer trying to recruit him, that feels like exactly what an animation director like Stanton would bring to a live-action film.

And then it cuts to a red-skinned chick in some alien princessy outfit spouting gibberish about "Jeddaks" and "Ninth Rays" and "the fate of our world" in this huge-ass exotic throne room that looks like rejected concept art from Thor. To the rule I coined earlier, there should also be the following corollary: if you're writing a movie about an ordinary person who is suddenly transported into an alien fantasy world, it is best to keep a tight 1st-person POV. Never leave your protagonist. Allow the audience to learn about the world and the story at the same time as he does. I've not read the novel, but I'm pretty sure Burroughs followed this rule, so why didn't the movie? It's not really that the plot is too convoluted, as many reviews have opined; it's that it's not structured well. This leads to an inconsistent pace throughout - sometimes it's nice and slow, sometimes it's slow and boring (e.g. an interminable scene with Carter and Dejah in a cave that's just another long exposition infodump), and sometimes it's head-spinningly fast and frenetic (e.g. the last act with all its action bits).

What I wished it would elaborate more on, instead of who's fighting who where and why with the whatchamacallits, are the character relationships. For instance, Sola is apparently Tars Tarkas' daughter, but he does not recognise her as such, and it's apparently a big deal when he does - why? Is there something going on here with Thark culture that you're not explaining? Even the central romance between Carter and Dejah feels underdeveloped, and it feels jarring when they suddenly get all lovey-dovey. There's also a whole bunch of other characters - and their goofy names - to keep track of, all of whom are just taking up space: Dejah's father Tardos Mors (Ciarรกn Hinds), some Helium general guy Kantos Kan (James Purefoy), this mean old Thark named Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church), some other mean female Thark named Sarkoja (Polly Walker), and you see what I mean about the goofy names?

Look, I don't mean to sound like some ignoramus; this being sci-fi/fantasy (more specifically, a hybrid of both known as "planetary romance" or "sword and planet"), of course there'll be alien-sounding names and fantastic stuff to wrap one's head around. And I'm a fan of both genres. It's just that the way it's all presented here makes it confusing and alienating (pun!), most likely more so for anyone who didn't grow up on a steady diet of sci-fi and fantasy films and literature. Still, there's a lot to like here if you're not the kind of viewer who totally doesn't get sci-fi and fantasy. The visual design of Barsoom is pretty gorgeous - the landscape, the costumes, those airships, and the beautifully ruined cities that bespeak a world that was once much more alive than it is now. And as I said earlier, when it does get its old-fashioned adventure vibe right, it's a lot of fun. Taylor Kitsch plays it a little too straight, but he has just the right screen presence of a cinematic pulp hero. And Lynn Collins lends gravitas to her Martian princess role as well as sexiness where it's needed. You'll have no problems rooting for these two.

This marks the third attempt at starting a sci-fi/fantasy franchise that aims for a deliberately old-fashioned feel, after Prince of Persia and Cowboys and Aliens - and like those two, this one earns the same rating from me. (Although I think I may have slightly overrated Cowboys and Aliens.) And like those two, this one sadly won't succeed; it didn't even beat The Lorax on its opening weekend box-office. Perhaps it was too much to expect Stanton to match Brad Bird at bringing a mastery of animated film to the realm of live-action - or maybe an epic sci-fi adventure is a much larger bite to chew than a purely fun modern-day spy action flick. Still, I would've liked to see John Carter get another shot at the big screen, even with Stanton returning to the helm; I think he can only improve from here. And since he's still a member in good standing of Pixar's brain trust, I don't think this movie's failure will hurt him much. But it would've been really really nice if we'd gotten another Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Expectations: few - but curiosity, plenty


Martina Robles | VA said...

I was so disappointed with the movie. I was very excited for this movie after i watched the trailer, it seems so awesome but after i watch the entire film, i was disappointed. And I totally agree with you review.

= Spartacus Fan