Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Movies - John Carter review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Andrew Stanton
Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 132mins 
John Carter is seemingly a movie at odds with itself since its inception. Edgar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi serial originated so much of the sci-fi we see on screen today and is so beloved, it seems ridiculous for it to have never been put on screen. The problem, of course, is that those who have been inspired by Burroughs' work also built on it, drawing up worlds of increasing detail and grandeur that the original work now appears sketchy and overfamiliar in comparison. It's an iconic story with an iconic title, but one which doesn't sit well for attraction broad audiences: the original title, A Princess Of Mars, was deemed unappealing to men by Disney executives. The revision, John Carter Of Mars, was halved after 'Of Mars' was decided unappealing to women. It's questionable whether the surviving, nondescript title holds any appeal for anyone. Its neutrality could scarcely be any less evocative of Burroughs' pulpy sensuality.

Speaking of those pulp origins, Burroughs' work is hardly an easy fit for big-budget adaptation. He's got the scale and the big battles, but also a sense of ridiculousness and earthiness which sit at odds with the blockbuster's love of the shiny and epic. Everything in the original novel/serial is described in wonderfully gritty detail, revelling in every fresh piece of weirdness and exploitation the author can throw at his readers. John Carter, on the other hand, looks too snazzy for its own good: the alien designs are impressive and stay true to the word of the text, but want to impress rather than thrill and shock. As Zack Snyder discovered in his Watchmen adaptation, there's a big difference between capturing the word of the text and the spirit of its voice.
Carter isn't a bad movie, just one in desperate need of personality. There's pleasure to be had in a modern sci-fi movie willing to throw out copious baffling terms ('Barsoom', 'Tharks', names like Tars Tarkas and Matai Shang) and expect the audience to keep up. The opening voice-over lays out the unknown history of the planet we humans call Mars without a trace of irony. It's all very important we recognise how the cities of Helium (seriously) and Zodanga have been at war for thousands of years, with the tide now turning thanks to an energy weapon called the Ninth Ray, acquired by the thuggish general Sab Than courtesy of the mysterious Tharns. Stop laughing, you in the back row! Don't you know this is an epic?

The movie's lack of a sense of humour is at odds with it being inherently amusing in a delightfully cheesy way, better suited to a flippant Indiana Jones-esque tone than the pseudo-Lawrence Of Arabia lite we end up with. Burroughs knew how barking mad his story was, to the extent of his originally wanting to write under the pen-name 'Normal Bean' to make sure everyone knew he was actually sane - fortunately a typographical error in the first publication, changing 'Normal' to 'Norman', put paid to those intentions. Regardless, this material is closer to Flash Gordon than David Lean and would have benefited from aiming for fun rather than stony-faced gravitas.

Occasionally this modern sensibility yields improvements: Dejah Thoris, the ought-to-be eponymous Princess Of Mars, was a fairly unambitious damsel in distress in Burroughs' work, but is here updated to a scientist and warrior, all the more appealing for excelling in both where too many movie females claim such expertise before turning into a gibbering, weeping wreck at the first sign of difficulty. She still gets captured and is under permanent threat of an unwanted marriage - such is the nature of the work - but on her way also makes several important discoveries and shows both strength of will and responsibility. The movie loses points for making her wear clothes - a vital characteristic of Burroughs' heroine is, of course, that she's stark naked for the duration - but it's a pleasure to for once be in the company of a female lead who is more than just a generically pretty face, in no small part thanks to a headstrong performance from Lynn Collins.

It's baffling the marketing campaign has completely overlooked her, since the movie picks up each time she appears on-screen. She's so good, in fact, that the hero on whose shoulders the promotions have focused is utterly overshadowed. Taylor Kitsch doesn't do anything particularly wrong, despite struggling with some of the more clunky dialogue (it's never going to be easy talking about Tharks and whatnot whilst keeping a straight face), but unlike the spirited Dejah, Carter's personality is overlooked in favour of regular reminders of his ability to jump particularly high - one of the movie's few attempts at humour arrives in an early scene where he ungracefully attempts to adapt to the logistics of Mars gravity, scored to classical music - and throw a mean punch. In Burroughs' novel, this approach worked in allowing the reader to take the hero's place. In the movie, he's just a damp squib, as uninteresting as his name.

The challenges inherent in adapting a work of Burroughs' pulp sensibilities into a big budget blockbuster overwhelm John Carter. Devoted fans will surely by underwhelmed by how much of Burroughs' flavour is lost, while newcomers will find a movie that hits all the required 'epic' notes, from gladiatorial combat to big battle scenes, but cannot muster anything new in a genre that has moved beyond the templates Burroughs was among the first to lay down.

The movie is visually clean, but too much so, evoking the Star Wars prequels and Avatar rather than Forbidden Planet via Evil Dead and A Fistful Of Dollars. It fulfils its most rudimentary function as a passably enjoyable Saturday night out, but the tiny tastes of eccentricity which do break through only promise levels of fun that never quite arrive. Warrior Princess Dejah Thoris and a pleasingly silly monster dog creature called Woola are the highlights of a movie which doesn't do too much badly on its own terms, but makes the criminal blunder of focus-grouping the soul and fun from material which lived off it. [ 6 ]

No comments: