Friday, March 23, 2012


Much to my amazement, I did manage to get out to see Disney's John Carter. At this point, the film seems destined to become a cult classic. It is one of the largest box office flops in history, and Disney has taken a $200 million-dollar write-down as a result. Meanwhile, most science fiction fans seem to have really enjoyed the movie, and there's even a facebook page demanding a sequel (fat chance guys). By this point, I think almost every other relevant blog has already praised and/or buried this film, but here are my belated thoughts anyway.

The film is a fairly faithful adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) gets chased into a cave by Apache and then gets teleported to Mars. On Mars, the lower gravity makes him incredibly strong, and he can jupo great distances. He hangs out with the tribal green Martians and befriends their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), then he gets involved in a war between the red Martian kingdoms of Helium  and Zodanga, and their respective princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and "jeddak" Sab Than ( West). All of this is straight out of the novel, and many specific scenes from the book appear.

John Carter is the first live action film of Andrew Stanton, who directed a few Pixar films, including the masterful Wall-E. Considering that pulp fan Michael Chabon was also involved in writing the screenplay, I had high expectations for this movie, despite its poor box office performance and the general air of doom that clung to it. And, well, I did have fun. The cgi characters look great (and DaFoe steals the show as Tars Tarkas). Dejah Thoris was a bit more proactive than in the novel, and she's a scientist now; I thought Lynn Collins did an especially good job pulling off a mishmash of character tropes and finds the core of a fairly ridiculous character (also, Martians wear clothes in this version). There's a strong sense of adventure that pervades the whole film, and, in what I consider to be a very good sign, I like the film more today than when I walked out of the theater a few days ago.

That said, it's far from perfect. I think there are two major problems. First, Taylor Kitsch didn't really sell his role as the transplanetary swashbuckling warrior. If you look at the implausible-epic-fun adventure films that have worked and succeeded over the past few decades, it's clear that you need a very charismatic male lead to win larger audiences over by winking their way through the silly parts - someone like Johnny Depp or Harrison Ford. Kitsch, on the other hand, plays it straight and delivers his lines with a James Franco-esque woodenness that threatened to put me to sleep on the few occasions when the action slowed down. Which leads us to the second problem: the film is over-packed with concepts. Making a very faithful adaptation of a hundred-year-old pulp isn't necessarily a good idea, and the screenwriters probably could have streamlined things more. Not only do they keep most of the novel's clunky concepts, they actually add a few more wrinkles - Carter gets a more tragic past, for instance, and, in what I think was the film's biggest misstep, we get alien manipulators called  the Thern as the mastermind villains (I assume that this material is from the second book, The Gods of Mars). It's easy to see why these choices were made. The former gives Carter more of a character arc, and the latter allows the writers to raise the stakes (in perhaps a more plausible way than the possible loss of all Martian oxygen in the novel) and link Mars' fate more closely to Earth's. These ideas work on paper, but they cluttered things up in practice. Along the same lines, the framing story is far too long, though at least it did pay off nicely in the end. I also think the Martian landscape could have looked a little less like Utah.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this film on next year's Hugo short list. It seems to be well-liked, and it's failure has made it a lovable 250 million dollar underdog. And, I could even see myself nominating it. That said, I hope that this isn't the peak of sf film for the year, especially with films like Prometheus and The Hobbit on the horizon.

Grade: B

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