zondag 11 maart 2012

Disney's First Trip to Barsoom

John Carter :

****/*****, or 8/10

Remember the time when the science fiction and fantasy genres were less clearly delineated then they are now, and science fiction asked for much more suspension of disbelief and far less techno babble to sell its grandiose stories? You probably don't, since we're talking before the actual birth of the science fiction genre in movies, which would be the 1950s. In the thirties so-called 'space operas', displaying epic story telling in exotic locales with strange creatures (insofar as the budgets and effect allowed, both of which were usually pretty limited) were a staple of the Saturday matinee serials in movie theatres, where people could shake off their worries brought along by the Depression for a little while and transport themselves to the world of the weird and wonderful. Then along came the fifties with the usual rocket science, nuclear weapons and misguided scientists and the space opera vanished until Star Wars revamped it in the late seventies and made it nigh impossible to get away with a believable universe on anything but the highest of budgets, which is the reason that Hollywood rarely dares to return to the subgenre. Under Andrew Stanton's direction, Disney now takes the gamble with John Carter, the first of what will hopefully be a series of huge, marvelous sci-fi movies based on Egar Rice Burroughs' classic Barsoom novels. Stanton, of Finding Nemo and Wall·E fame, delivers a grand, old-fashioned science fiction spectacle, on an enormously high budget that also makes expectations for both the audience and the studio itself rise to the roof (I myself surely was stoked for this project for quite a while). Fortunately, Stanton seemingly knows how to make an epic sci-fi flick with the right balance of action, humour and stunning visuals, though at times he unfortunately misses a few beats when it comes to storytelling.
Ironically, it's the segments of the movie's plot that are Earth-based that form the weakest links of the overall plot, feeling somewhat randomly intertwined and devoid of coherence, both opening and closing the movie on an unsatisfactory note. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is called to his uncle's estate, where he learns the good man, John Carter, has died and left everything to him in his will, including his journals, which Eddie starts to read. They tell of Civil War Confederate vet John (Taylor Kitsch, who previously played a not too shabby Gambit in the otherwise forgettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine) seeking a cave of gold in the Arizona territory, where he's hindered in his efforts by a grumpy US Army officer and several Apache indians, before stumbling upon said cave by accident where he is transported to Mars via an odd medallion. This is where the movie really kicks into gear and the fun truly begins, as John is captured by a band of four-armed, green aliens called Tharks, under the command of Tars Tarkas (performed by the ever ingenious Willem Dafoe).
The Tharks turn out to be a warrior race of noble savages, Tarkas being noble and the rest of them savage, as is demonstrated effectively when they destroy their unhatched eggs so weak offspring won't infect their tribe's strength, while the overly cute newlyborns are subjected to very harsh treatment, as is John. Because of the different gravity on Mars, he finds himself to have superior speed, agility and strength over the natives of Barsoom, their name for their red planet, making him a force to be reckoned with, were it not for the fact he doesn't care about anything other than returning home.

Meanwhile, unrest rules other parts of Barsoom, as the great city states of Helium and Zodanga are at war over dominance of the planet. However, a third party secretly controls the war by supplying Zodanga's ruthless prince Sab Than (a gnarly Dominic West) with a secret weapon, the Ninth Ray, which has crippled Helium's fleet and forces its ruler, Tardos Mors (Ciaran “Caesar” Hinds) to marry off his beautiful daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, also an X-Men Origins: Wolverine veteran) to his nemesis to save his city from utter ruin. Dejah naturally feels differently and flees, only to be hunted down by Sab and his minions, which ends in a sensational battle between very impressive, awesomely designed Barsoomian air crafts and Dejah's near-death, of which she's saved by John who literally leaps to her rescue, after which Dejah eventually convinces John, indifferent at first until he gets to know the gorgeous princess a little better, to stay on Barsoom and help her noble cause, with the aid of Tarkas and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton, but pixelized). The various key players now have met and set off on a quest to save Helium from the Zodangan forces and their insidious hidden overlords, the Therns, a race of immortal beings who consider themselves gods and have a long term plan to rule both Barsoom and Earth, though they did not account for the anomalous John Carter and his great power. With the help of the Tharks, only won over by Carter surviving a nasty Arena fight with two giant white apes, a big battle between good and evil over the fate of Mars ensues.

So there you have it: clearly defined good guys, typically sinister bad guys, a band of brigands with a vicious temperament but a heart of gold, a beautiful princess, a nefarious prince being governed by shadowy puppeteers, all manner of wildly fascinating creatures, big battles, a few chase scenes involving atypical flying machinery and some mystical elements involving powerful forms of energy and faux religion thrown in, all come togther to form this elaborate space opera (though admittedly, there's little 'final frontier' type space), simply called John Carter. Thanks to Star Wars and many many many other works of science fiction leeching off Burroughs' original works (at least, original back in 1912) for decades, there's nothing really new to be found here, but the end result is tremendously entertaining all the same. The movie boasts a bunch of talented actors, including the afore mentioned Dafoe and Hinds, as well as Mark Strong playing yet another unbelievably bad, naughty man in the shape of the Thern leader Matai Shang, something with which he can be thoroughly trusted as always (has the man ever not played bad guys, you have to wonder). The cast also includes James Purefoy amongst its ranks as the dashing and sarcastic Kantos Kan, Captain of Helium: it will please fans of the brilliant HBO series Rome to see Hinds and Purefoy together again in the exact same type of relationship as they had in the first century AD (and you get Polly Walker as a bonus, playing another absolute bitch in the guise of Sola's rival Thark Sarkoja). Kitsch and Collins, though playing the movie's leads, are surrounded by better actors, but let's face it: so were Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars, and Sam Worthington plus Zoe Saldana in Avatar. Overall they fare simply adequately, which is enough for John Carter: it leaves some room for improvement for the sequel. Overall, Collins' beautiful and sexy but strong, smart and independent Dejah Thoris kicks Kitsch' human ass with ease though.

Of course with an epic movie come epic visuals, and John Carter delivers in spades, not only thanks to the VFX department, which undoubtedly has been working overtimes to get this project completed in time, but also thanks to the beautiful natural vistas provided by the Grand Canyon location shooting. As beautiful as the clear waters of the sacred river Iss are the digital shots of the walking city of Zodanga or the spiral tower at the center of Helium. However, it's the various digital creatures that stand out the most, of which the most prominent are the Tharks. They look very well rendered and don't attract attention to themselves for being digital, which is a testament to both the skill of the pixel pushing VFX artists as to the talent of the actors performing and voicing these humanoid extraterrestrials. The Tharks provide for the most memorable scenes of the film, not just because of their bizarre look – green skinned, four armed and endowed with big tusks on their cheeks – but also due to their fascinating warrior culture, of which we would have loved to have seen more. Once a proud and accomplished race, the struggle for survival amongst the various Thark clans on the dying surface of Barsoom has slowly driven them into barbarism, with the strongest specimens ruling the tribes with an iron fist. However, as Tars Tarkas shows in his intelligent and merciful leadership, they are not beyond redemption, still revealing shreds of “humanity” (the word isn't particularly sufficient here) and hope for returning to their former state as a force to be reckoned with, an opportunity John eagerly provides them with. Plus, there is the added bonus of a dark sense of humor to Thark behavior, as we see them all too happily plundering a downed Zodangan space craft or wryly saluting their new found Helium allies in the final battle in the typical American fashion, proof that we shouldn't take this movie all too seriously.

The same applies to the other digital creatures in the film, most notably John's new Barsoomian pet Woolla, a toad like dog creature (sort of a cross between Jabba the Hutt and a squirrel) with an unlikely capacity for speed that provides for most of the comic relief, but fortunately never gets to become a true JarJarism as would have been possible, also owing to the fact he can't speak. Woolla could easily have been a wholesomely annoying sidekick as we've seen all too often in recent Hollywood blockbusters, but Stanton thankfully seems determined to keep his shenanigans down to a respectful minimum. Less funny and in fact a real threat to our protagonists are the Barsoomian white apes John has to face in the Thark arena to win the hearts of the crowd and convince them to join Helium in its conflict for the good of all Martian races. The arena fight is probably the movie's most sold concept, displayed on many promotional materials and forming big chunks of the various teaser spots and trailers. Though of course it hearkens back to the simply stunning huge arena fights in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (which remain unsurpassed), John's special powers make it at least distinct instead of simply a pale copy. Leaping over these creatures and smacking them with big boulders and chains proves to be a whole different strategy of dispatching alien monsters than chopping their limbs off with lightsabers. However, the arena fight is not the climax of the film: that honour is reserved for the grandiose battle between the Zodangan army and the combined Thark and Helium forces, though the speeder craft chase between the giant mechanic legs of the moving city of Zodanga and the aerial battle between Dejah's air craft and her Zodangan pursuers that first has her team up with John, also claim their equal share of sticking out as particularly well executed dynamic action scenes that John Carter will be most remembered for.

Unfortunately, even on Barsoom, plot is far from everything, though it's not nearly as messy and forgetful as the few Earth scenes which open and close the film. The story element which fails the most here is the existence of the Ninth Ray, a supposed energy force that serves as Zodanga's weapon of mass destruction after having been given to this conquering nation by the scheming Therns. It's obviously a great source of power as showcased when it destroys air ships and ground troops alike, but what exactly it is and how it works is largely left under-explained. Dejah Thoris at first is revealed to work on her own Ray which is stated by her to have great potential for good as well as bad, but the movie never picks up on this loose end later on. Things get even more complicated when the Ninth Ray is brought into context with the nine planets in the solar system, as if that's how it derives its power of transporting the Therns, and John Carter himself, between planets, but this plot twist too is left undeveloped. Either expositionary scenes explaining the Ninth Ray energy were omitted for pacing reasons, or the writers decided not to bother too much with the specifics so as not to bore the audience needlessly, which sadly makes this otherwise quite important story element, somehow connecting Earth with Barsoom, the weakest link of the overall film. 

At least the Therns, wielding its stupendously awesome power which makes them consider themselves untouchable gods among the insect inhabitants of both worlds, prove to be an intriguingly crafted race of antagonists, pulling the strings of both the Zodangans by directing their moves in battle and the Tharks by being their uncompromising deities in a heartless religious relationship that forces its subjects to abandon everything and sail forth on the river Iss towards an uncertain vision of paradise. It would have been even better constructed in a narrative sense if the Therns also secretly manipulated Helium as well, thus “Palpatining” all sides in the struggle for Barsoom and setting them against each other just so eventually they could pick up the pieces and declare themselves the true victorious party in the aftermath of the global war they instigated, but their shady plan works well regardless just controlling two races. Given the established Thern presence on Earth which is largely brushed over in this film, it's highly likely we'll be seeing more of them in the sequel, which has already been announced to be aptly titled John Carter: The Gods of Mars. This movie ends clearly leaving room for further trips to Barsoom, as we see John's death was only a ruse on his part to return to Mars in a somewhat confusing fashion, while a sequel would do well bringing closure to some of the more feebly written plot elements in its predecessor.

Overall, John Carter has its narrative weaknesses, but otherwise succeeds perfectly in introducing us to the wonderful realm of Barsoom, a world slowly dying because of a lack of natural resources and the in-fighting of its natives, which is only brought to a halt when introducing the random element of the outsider John Carter. The movie provides for a solid combination of dynamic pace coupled with magnificent visual sights, grand scale battles between various fascinating cultures, all sorts of grotesque alien creatures and superb art design (did I mention the wicked Helium and Zodangan costumes yet?). Whether it will captivate general audiences, who might not be aware of the impact of the Barsoom novels as written by Burroughs a century ago on science fiction in literature and motion pictures since, remains to be seen, as many of its once unique characteristics have been appropriated by other texts in the same genre. People might see too much Star Wars or Avatar in this movie, but those films are well known to have copied elements from other works themselves. In this regard, John Carter is just a late entry into the cinematic world, where is was among the first of its kind in the world of literature. People should not judge it too harshly for that and just accept it for what it is, a genuine space opera that deserves to be embraced as an old friend late to a party. I for one have, and I already look forward to returning to Barsoom in the future.

And watch the trailer here:


2 opmerkingen:

  1. I'll cross my finger and hope the adventures will continue! We need more grand epic space operas.

    All the (p)reviews I read basically said the movie would not make enough money. Since when is making money a measure to go by. Reminds me of the food critic from Ratatouille. Luckily you still got a sincere love for what you review and you can take " fun " into account, which most critics think is a dirty thing.

    John Carter was fun! There I said it.

    Still hoping Disney sees the first movie as an investment for a franchise, so they can profit in the long run... ow crap now I'm talking money too. We' re doomed!

    But it's getting too late to make coherent sentences so I'm going back to sleep.

    Glad to have watched the movie with you buddy! Next movie the Avengers?!

    1. Seems they were right about John Carter not making enough money, it's not doing so well as Disney hoped. I guess hopes were just too high. Sucks though, this could seriously jeopardize a potential JCM sequel, even if it has already been announced.

      But yeah, fun and money should not be related. However, studio execs don't care enough about the former and too much about the latter. That's how the Hollywood system works unfortunately...

      Avengers is okay with me, but we still have Wrath of the Titans to look forward too before that!