Sunday, March 18, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter


So I went to see this today and was...hmm. I want to say I was pleasantly surprised, but I wasn't really that surprised. I got what I was expecting, and my expectations happened to be high enough that it was significantly enjoyable! So know that up front - this is a good movie and is worth seeing. Background time though.

The Basics: Made by Disney, Joh Carter stars Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, stars in the upcoming Battleship) and Lynn Collins (True Blood, also X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and is directed (and written by!) by Andrew Stanton, whose work includes Pixar films Finding Nemo and WALL-E. The movie is based on A Princess of Mars, a classic pulp novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story has had a hand in inspiring the Star Wars franchise as well as James Cameron's Avatar, and has had numerous attempts to actually make it into a feature film, but this is the first successful complete adaptation. I feel it important to note that I have NO knowledge of Burroughs's original text, so take my words in that context.
The Plot (essentially spoiler-free!): Mars isn't a dead planet but a dying one. The planet is dominated by two city-states, Helium and Zodanga, which have been at war for a thousand years. The leader of the Zodanga, Sab Than, receives a godly weapon, The Ninth Ray, and begins single-handedly winning the war. He declares that he'll agree to a cease-fire if he can marry the Helium princess, Dejah Thoris.
Back on Earth, it is 1881 John Carter has died. His estate is transferred to Edgar Rice Burroughs, along with a secret diary containing the story of the film (which we are to assume will be changed to a book and later released by Burroughs, which is pretty cool). The story talks about how in 1861, post-Civil War, John Carter is hunting for gold in Arizona when through a series of events he ends up on Mars. Due to the lower gravity there, he happens to be super-strong and can jump huge distances (since our muscles are built for our environment, so they'd be stronger to compensate for our higher gravity). His first encounter is with the giant four-armed green alien Tharks. Through events he gets tied into the conflict with Sab Than, and that's as far as I'm going to go without spoiling.

The plot is pretty good. Because this isn't a review of the original text, I'll try to stick to reviewing how they handled it. In general, it was handled well, but most of my complaints about it boil down to one point: it was BEGGING to be longer. Not too much longer, but a bit. As is, it's 130 minute long, and bumping it up to two and a half hours would have solved so much. A lot of scenes, ESPECIALLY in the first half, seemed disjointed or abrupt in the transitions. They slotted together in weird ways, and just a minute more of lingering in various scenes, or explanation, or even a few more minutes of backstory in the beginning would have done a LOT to help. The second half isn't nearly as touched by this.
It felt like a lot of the time it was assumed that the audience has a basic understanding of the source text. In general though this wasn't an issue, this is a nitpick. The story is good. The only other issue I kinda have is that is was VERY pulpy - while this is, of course, the way the original book was written, the world has changed and pulp isn't really a singificant genre anymore and could have used some writing around it to make it seem more like a modern sci-fi and less like a retro sci-fi, though I suppose that's valid too. It was advertised as modern sci-fi though. They should've made a big deal of its retro-style, that'd be good. That's presentation though, not an issue with the content itself.
The 3D: First: The 3D is NOT BAD. It didn't make the film unenjoyable in any way. In fact, I basically forgot the glasses were even on.  However, I wanted to mention that I think the film would have been better without it for two reasons, and no, neither of them is "I hate 3D". The first is the darknening. I don't know if this is a universal, but our theater's 3D glasses are shaded slightly so it makes everything darker. The movie has some brilliant bright colors, and it would be even stronger if I could fully experience those colors. The other thing is related to how they do the 3D, by blurring things according to distance. In some of the large sweeping shots near the beginning that establish the setting, it would have been nice if they hadn't blurred out the back. I know it wasn't the focal point of the scene, but with all that amazing scenery it needed to be unobstructed by blur. Again though, this didn't make the movie worse, it just kept it from obtaining an even higher success.
The General Performance, and Dialogue Writing: Well, it was pretty good. Nothing particularly wrong with the acting at all, though I liked the Tharks' acting even moreso than that of the humans/red martians. The dialogue was pretty cheezy a few times, but in general was pretty good. Needed some more exposition woven into it (which could have helped with my own feeling of disjointed-ness).
The Art Direction: LOVED IT. Best part. It was everything I wanted in planetbound sci-fi art direction. Everything was so Star Wars and Avatar and familiar yet new. The Tharks were easily my favorite design, they're large and tough with those tusks, the four-arms makes them instantly alien, and their tech and culture (along with painted bodies) just really spoke to me. Additionally, that dog thing that bonds with John is hilarious and cute and alien. The riding beasts of the Tharks were very much familiar, a combination of Star Wars' banthas, Avatar's giant beast things, and real life rhinos. It felt RIGHT, like it could be real. I wish there were some bird creatures though.
The tech design was cool, pretty steampunk-y and industrial. The overall shape of the flying crafts were cool. The costumes were pretty good overall (and I have more to say about those in a moment). The environment felt like a fantasy mars, and was a great, if relatively unoriginal, rendition of the wasteland world. The Therns reminded me a lot of the Priors from the last couple seasons of Stargate SG-1, as well as Fringe's Observers.
I was immediately reminded of Frank Frazetta and Gerald Brom. I've had personal exposure to a lot of Brom's works through D&D's Dark Sun setting, and Frazetta's Conan paintings obviously were huge inspirations. The costumes were very Frazetta feeling, particularly the wedding dress Dejah wears. everything really benefited from that red-filter feel that's always permeated those works and Dark Sun and Conan and all.

All in all, I think it was an excellent movie. Flaws in places, but forgivable due to the genre. It's been stated that it's the first of a series (I don't recall, but it might have been a trilogy idea), and I think that's a pretty do-able thing. Also, as the story goes on, the less it will have to explain the world each time, so the disjointedness will go away. I'll be going to see the sequel.
Watch This Movie If You: Like sci-fi, like pulpy over-the-top action, are a fan of the original work, or love Frazetta and Brom's work.
Don't Watch This Movie If You're Expecting: Something truly original or stunning, poignant dialogue.
Score & Grade: 8/10, B+ (maybe A-).

On a final note, at the very end it gives us an image of Mars and the words JOHN CARTER OF MARS appear over it before fading to credits. Why was this not the title? Seriously. John Carter of Mars is an even better title than John Carter. Whatever though, that's taste.

End Recording,

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