As a fantasy fan, you might describe me as a supremely casual one -- I certainly don’t register as a geek. I’m not into CONAN. Couldn’t stand the HERCULES or XENA TV shows. Even the LORD OF THE RINGS books weren’t my thing -- I liked the films, but I think I’ve only seen each one twice. I did watch the original CLASH OF THE TITANS about a million times and read THOR comics as a kid though. And I’ve played the occasional fantasy-based video game.
So even though STAR WARS is my favorite movie, I was never into JOHN CARTER -- it seemed to tilt way too much toward fantasy for my tastes. I’m less of a sword and sandal kind of guy, and more of a laser sword and boot kind of guy. Still, I’ve been at least intellectually interested in the film, because I know the original books are one of Harry’s favorite things, and he’s been both dreaming about, and trying to get them made into films for years.
In the afterword of the book THE GREATEST SCI-FI MOVES NEVER MADE, Harry called JOHN CARTER OF MARS *the* greatest sci-fi movie never made. He then wrote about it in his own book. Fortunately, movie producer Jim Jacks was paying attention, and after Harry’s words rekindled his own interest in the source material, convinced Paramount to secure the rights. He brought on Harry (who ultimately became a producer), and they lined up Robert Rodriguez to direct, who shares a big love of fantasy with Harry. Over the years, Harry would keep me updated on the film’s development, showing me test reels or production art, even as the director changed to Kerry Conran, and ultimately to Jon Favreau. Sadly, Paramount ultimately got cold feet, and let the rights revert. Disney snapped them up, and word got around that Pixar was making the film as their first live-action feature. It turned out to be some key people from Pixar, and would ultimately be a Disney, not a Pixar feature. [More on the flip side of this story from Andrew Stanton’s perspective later]. While I felt the film was probably in good hands, I was heartbroken for my friend Harry. After being the catalyst for, and a player in, the modern-day rebirth of the film, he would ultimately become yet another frustrated filmmaker in the century long history of the property. That history stretched back to at least 1931, when Bob Clampett, of Looney Tunes fame, tried to get the film made as what would have been the first animated feature for MGM. Some of that test footage, done a few years later, still survives:
If you are interested in the history, much of it is recounted in a new chapter of the revised edition of THE GREATEST SCI-FI MOVES NEVER MADE. It is a very entertaining and fascinating book if you haven’t read it.
Back in the present day, I was not enthused with what I was seeing about JOHN CARTER OF MARS. First, they hired Taylor Kitch, who I was not impressed with as Gambit in the woeful WOLVERINE. Then they excised Mars from the title of the film, which I still find both wrong-headed and, as an astronomer, offensive. Others were grumbling about the redness of the “red men” or the size of the Tharks, but I could care less about that. What I found troubling was that none of the ads made me interested in the film at all -- it seemed like some of the worst parts of STAR WARS, EPISODE 2 in man-panties. I didn’t care for that soulless CG supposed-love story, so why would I want to see this? And worse, outside of some hardcore geeks, the film was not registering *at all.* Astronomers are usually pretty seriously into science fiction, and I’ve probably asked about a dozen people around the office if they are going to see the movie, and I don’t think a single one has had any idea what I’m talking about.
All this is a long way of saying that I was curious enough about JOHN CARTER to ask Geoff Boucher of the LA Times Hero Complex blog to get me into his 3D IMAX
screening last night, with Andrew Stanton in attendance, because I figured it would be at least intellectually interesting to see what decisions they made about Mars and about adapting the material. But as for the quality of the film, I was expecting something between diverting, but forgettable, and train wreck. You know, KRULL.
Boy was I wrong. JOHN CARTER was amazing! I have not felt so genuinely surprised in a movie theater since seeing the original MATRIX. I saw STAR WARS through JEDI in their original runs at their formative ages of 4-10, and I lost my damn fool mind. Kids today will be doing the same thing for JOHN CARTER. This is their STAR WARS. Twelve year olds will lose their shit. That isn’t to say that this film is only for kids. But kids are hardwired for the spirit of wonder and adventure. We’ve all got it deep down, even if we’ve become jaded and cynical adults. I didn’t know I still had an inner 12 year old in me, but there he was at the JOHN CARTER screening, hepped up on crack. At most screenings these days the knowledge I have as an adult gets in the way of that pure sense of glee and discovery: I’ve seen the plot before, I’m unconvinced by the actors or the effects, or I’ve followed the development of the film so closely on the internet, or it is so spoiled in the trailer, that I know what’s coming. All that melted away in JOHN CARTER, and I was just right there on Mars discovering aliens, leaping around another planet, and getting into adventures.
Even though the basic story is 100 years old, and so many films have borrowed from the John Carter books (e.g. the plot of AVATAR, various aspects of the STAR WARS films), JOHN CARTER the film still felt fresh to me. That’s a testament to the writing team, Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon, who weren’t afraid of sticking to the source material, even when some would have said it is needlessly complex (there are a ton of characters, several villains, and multiple warring races). But at the same time they updated things that had to be changed for a modern audience, fully fleshed out thin characters, and wove together details from several books.
Now, there can never be another STAR WARS, or EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, at least not for me. But JOHN CARTER is a hell of a lot better than the STAR WARS prequels. I kept thinking during the screening, *this* is what the prequels should have been! Everything that was wrong with them: thin characters, bad dialog, wooden acting, and obtrusive CG, is fixed here. Even though the Tharks are CG, Andrew Stanton had the actors on set, on stilts, just to give the other actors the correct eye line, and something to act off of. It makes all the difference. And even though he was starting with pretty thin characters from the source material, they have a lot more substance here.
I really liked AVATAR, because it was really the only movie since the STAR WARS series to capitalize on the promise of film in conveying space adventure. But I did have problems with the bad dialog and predictable plot. I like JOHN CARTER even better than AVATAR. It doesn’t have the depth of the biological environment, or quite the same commitment to scientific realism that AVATAR does [here’s my article on it], but the characters and their interactions seem more real, or at least I was more emotionally invested in them. And what JOHN CARTER lacks in biological complexity, it makes up for in terms of the mythology of the whole world and the societies inhabiting it.
Going in, I was worried about the acting. But I have to say, Taylor Kitch was a pretty damn good John Carter. He never achieves Harrison Ford-level absolute metaphysical embodiment of the character, but that’s probably too high of a bar. I can’t really think of anyone else I’d rather see in the role. When he’s on Earth, he’s a total badass, but when he shifts to Mars he seems a bit lost. But that’s exactly what the role called for. And I was pleasantly surprised by Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. She’s sexy and tough, but not one-dimensionally so. She succeeds at letting the vulnerability of her character come though, which humanizes her, without becoming anything like a damsel in distress. Even the CG/motion capture acting is great -- Willem Dafoe is a third pillar of the movie as Tars Tarkas, and Thomas Haden Church is equally convincing as Tal Hajus. Some of the humanoid supporting characters aren’t as fleshed out, but they have great actors to pull them off: Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, Bryan Cranston, and Mark Strong.
This isn’t to say that JOHN CARTER is perfect -- a few things about it are only good to very good, but not quite amazing, and they keep the film it from becoming truly transcendent. First, there are a series of villains, and all are compelling, but none quite rise to the level of science fiction icon like Darth Vader or Khan. The same goes for the score, by Michael Giacchino. It is very well done and really serves the story, but doesn’t move the soul like Williams at his peak (I feel like a bastard even mentioning such a thing). The design of the Tharks was another case where I get what they were going for, but I would have gone for something a little bulkier, harder-edged, and more threatening. And finally, I just wanted a whole lot more of the cities, technology, and culture of Barsoom, and a bit more of the fantasy element.
Having said that, I do love how strangely realistic the film feels. I thought I’d hate the idea of making Barsoom so much like present-day Mars. But with a story so fantastic (in the sense of fantasy), grounding the film really allows you to more readily suspend your disbelief. I suspect the same is true of making the red men only sort-of tanned with red tattoos.
Now the flip-side of Harry’s story, as told to us by Andrew Stanton at the screening Monday night. He’d gotten into the books after reading the Marvel Comic at age 12. He was a huge fan, and had been hoping his whole life to see a big-screen adaptation. It was as a fan that he was following the news when the film was in development at Paramount, desperately hoping it would get made because he couldn’t wait to see it. Just after it fell through, and at this point only two years into what would be a 4-year process on WALL-E, Dick Cook, chairman of Disney Studios, called Stanton just to see how things were going (something he never does). At the end of their conversation, Stanton said that Disney should acquire the rights to John Carter, because it would be perfect for the studio. They actually had them at one time, but failed to make the film. He just wanted someone to make it, because he wanted to see it get done, but thought there was no way he’d get to do it because he still had two years to go on WALL-E. As it turns out, Disney did get the rights, and ultimately asked Stanton to make the film.
So as sad as I am for Harry, the story does have a happy ending. Another true fan got to bring his vision to the screen, and he pulled off what has defeated dozens of the biggest names in Hollywood over the past century. And even better than that, it is a bad-ass space adventure!
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