09 March 2012

John Carter [of Mars] Is a Perfect Edgar Rice Burroughs Movie

John Carter (2012)
Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Samantha Morton, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, James Purefoy, Darryl Sabara.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

[This is a review from the POV of an unapologetic Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. You need to know this from the start, and much of what I say here relates directly to ERB. Since much of his great early work is in the public domain, and free to download for e-readers at Project Gutenberg, you too can start being an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan right now!]

Don’t expect the brackets in my post title John Carter [of Mars] to endure. People who have already seen John Carter will know what I mean: Walt Disney Pictures could not stop director Andrew Stanton from making John Carter of Mars the true title of his adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s century-old classic A Princess of Mars. Stanton, a fan of the Martian novels since he was a child, has given the perfect fan treatment to the material. If you’re a fan as well, then John Carter will carry you from the beginning until the end on a wave of childhood joy until you choke up at the final title cards.

If you’ve been reading my reviews of the Martian novels, then you already know my bias; I am also an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic from a young age. As with Captain America: The First Avenger, I am inclined to love this film more than most viewers. But, as with Captain America, I feel confident that the majority of viewers will enjoy this film, with a few caveats. Burroughs fans, however, may purchase with rock solid confidence.

In fact, the fan-service the film offers might end up a problem. If anything holds back John Carter from being a sizable hit—aside from some poor marketing choices—it will be that it is relentlessly “Burroughsian.” Never has an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs snared so faithfully his spirit and his style. But John Carter goes even farther than hitting a bulls-eye on the tone of its source: it is steeped in the mythology of Barsoom—ERB’s fantasy version of Mars—crammed with its politics, its biology, its language, its technology. For general audiences who know little about The First Citizen of Tarzana, the film may confuse them. Director Andrew Stanton shows how much he loves his source material in the way he refuses to water down any of it. The intricacies of Martian politics and its array of races appear on screen without apology and without hand-holding the audience.

I applaud this in a movie that, on its surface, looks like a nothing more than a standard science-fiction popcorn event offering big action thrills and beautiful people armed with swords and guns. But I wonder if this will turn off the casual viewer. I hope not, because John Carter far exceeds other recent films of its genre with strong characters and CGI that enhances the experience instead of turning everything into Transformers 3-style noise. Perhaps the movie isn’t a classic, but I have a sense that if Andrew Stanton gets a shot at making the next movie in the series, The Gods of Mars, then classic-dom is within his grasp. And ours.

So many scenes of pure Edgar Rice Burroughs brighten up the screen: John Carter first discovering the low-gravity of his new world in a combination of wonder and comedy; the incubator domes full of hatching green Martians; huge armadas of fliers blasting each other to shards with radium cannons and rifles; charging Thark war parties astride galloping thoats; arena battles to the death with the crowd’s loyalty swinging with the outcome; and John Carter rushing an entire army on his own and slashing through them with the fullest gore that PG-13 will allow. (Thank Issus for creatures who bleed blue blood to keep the rating down!) It’s all Edgar Rice Burroughs speaking through the screen, and it’s stupendous.

Although faithful to ERB’s world and style, the screenplay credited to Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Mark Andrew takes liberties with the plot of A Princess of Mars. Since this is the weakest of the first three volumes in the series, suffering from its author’s inexperience and almost unrestrained neophyte enthusiasm, a movie adaptation needs to strengthen the plot with a clearer through-line. The Holy Therns, the cruel theocrats who first appear in the book The Gods of Mars, get transported into this story to create a stronger sense of an adversary than appears A Princess of Mars, which has an episodic and meandering opening and only finds a central threat in its final quarter.

The framing device of a fictional version of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Darryl Sabara) finding the diary of his uncle John Carter still appears, but the movie actually starts before this. Appropriately, the first word spoken on screen is “Mars,” and Willem Dafoe’s narration throws the audience straight onto the planet and into its core conflict: The nations of Helium and Zodanga are at war. During an engagement between their fliers, the leader of the mysterious shape-shifting Holy Therns, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), materializes aboard a Zodangan ship and grants a potent weapon to Sab Than (Dominic West), jed of Zodanga. The new weapon, “The Ninth Ray,” will turn the tide of war against Helium.

This prologue is one of the few missteps the film makes, and it’s a curious one. It feels like something Disney mandated so viewers immediately get to see Mars in its visual glory before dropping into the mundane setting of New York for the framing device. This opening contains a massive load of information delivered in a short span, and since the story then jumps backwards in time twice, first to New York in 1881 and then to Arizona in 1868, it may give some viewers whiplash and make them think the film’s tone is going to be all over the map. It also means it takes that much longer to get John Carter to Mars, as feat Burroughs managed in only a few pages.

But once the movie places itself in 1881 with the fictional Edgar Rice Burroughs (the real one would have been six years old at the time), viewers get a chance to breathe and prepare themselves for the ride.

The segment in Arizona is a excellent mini-movie on its own. Stanton handles the Old West setting with such enthusiasm that it makes me long for him to try his hand at directing one of Burroughs’s Westerns, like The War Chief. As the broken John Carter, a former Confederate soldier who cares about nothing any more, escapes from the 7th Cavalry’s forceful attempt to recruit him, the movie establishes the character arc: John Carter is a pure survivalist with interest in no one’s cause except his own. On Barsoom, caught among the warring red Martians, the green-Martian tribe of the Tharks, and the manipulations of the Holy Therns, he will need to find a cause.

It’s up to Dejah Thoris of Helium (Lynn Collins) to convert Carter from the selfish loner who only wants to find his way off Mars into a defender of Helium against Zodanga and the world-killing Therns. The Dejah Thoris of the film is more like the character of Thuvia and Tara from the later novels: a resourceful, independent fighter. She’s also a scientist trying to find the secret of the new weapon that Zodanga now possesses.

But Dejah Thoris still ends up in a classic ERB situation: pledged into marriage with a villain. Sab Than offers peace with Helium if Dejah Thoris will marry him. The marriage is more than a dynastic ploy; it is part of the Holy Therns’ plot to annihilate the civilization of the planet through unending warfare. The plot point here about the Therns’ scheming is a bit muddy, but—Rescue the Princess! That’s a simpler point to grasp.

Even readers familiar with every beat in A Princess of Mars will find some surprises in the film’s plot, especially in the clever wrap-up on Earth, so I’ll leave alone any more details about it. I enjoy the fine-tuning that Stanton and Co. have done with Burroughs’s story, although I wonder how many audience members will be able to follow the talk of Therns, Thark tribal society, Warhoons, Zodanga, Helium, Jarsoom, Jeddaks, the religion of Issus, and Dotar Sojat. The continual repetition of this last term, the name the Tharks give John Carter in honor his killing two warriors with those names, is especially confusing since it gets almost no explanation and leaves the green Martians calling John Carter by three different names: “Virginia” (a fun running joke), “John Carter,” and “Dotar Sojat.”

(I recently posted a short guide to Barsoomian fauna, terms, and names. Viewers who have never read Burroughs or haven’t done so in a long time will benefit from give it a once over before seeing the movie. I originally thought this project was a lark, but now I see that it really will help people get a toe-hold on Mars before the plotting gets too thick.)

Where John Carter soars is among the Tharks. The towering green Martian barbarians are marvels, not only visually but also as fully developed characters. As CGI beings they aren’t realistic, but that doesn’t seem to be the aim of Stanton and the visual effects team: the Tharks are designed as animated characters along the lines of a Pixar film, imbued with a personality often absent from CG characters in live-action movies. Stanton’s career with Pixar (he directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E) pays off here. Every moment among the Tharks is a joy, and their unusual culture feel as real as anything on historical Earth.

Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church are excellent as the mo-cap and voice actors for Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus, but the Thark who stands out as one the film’s magnificent characters is Sola, played by Samantha Morton. Sola’s relationship to Tars Tarkas is an emotional pivot point in the film, and Morton’s performance combined with the animator’s work captures one the best elements of the book. In fact, I’ve criticized A Princess of Mars for not carrying Sola’s character far enough, and the movie gives the extra push I wanted to see from the character. Sola is heartbreaking and inspiring, and one of my favorite characters in any science-fiction film I’ve seen.

And then there’s Woola, John Carter’s faithful calot (Martian dog) companion. Woola will get the biggest chunk of attention of the cast—human and otherwise—in John Carter. If the film is a success, Woola will become the hero of every child and the source of fights on the playground over who gets to play him. Woola has “Pixar-love” all over him as well, emoting like a real dog and moving in creative and hilarious ways. Burroughs described calots as the speediest animals on Barsoom, and wow does the movie take that literally! Like the Tharks, every moment that Woola is on screen is plain great.
The human cast—at least, the ones not wearing mo-cap suits—may not surpass the Tharks and Woola, but they’re still fantastic. It’s difficult to go wrong with Dominic West and Mark Strong as villains. Although I feel that Mark Strong could play a calculating and haughty figure like Matai Shang even if he were in a coma, he is not in a coma and his insidious portrayal glues the plot-heavy parts of the film together. Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris breaks away from the helpless princess template and makes an impression as a hero of both combat skill and intellect. This is a character that could easily have come across as a super-model hauling around a sword, but Collins imbues the character with depth and never seems like she’s just eye candy.

What about our title character? How is Taylor Kitsch? He’s… good. Without the support of the superb characters around him he would fare far worse, but Kitsch does have a number of fine moments on his own. He’s best in the off-Mars scenes, such as the Western opening where he’s 100% believable as a man with nothing to lose and who’s willing to take foolish chances until he knocks himself unconscious. (Some of my biggest laughs came during the montage of Carter resisting the cavalry.) Lynn Collins elevates Kitsch in their screen-time together, but the emotional power rests on Collins’s shoulders in these scenes as she tries to get Carter to support Helium and stop griping about trying to get home.

The screenplay draws Carter as a more complex individual than the grand invincible swaggerer in Burroughs’s books, but that sometimes works against the film and Kitsch’s straightforward performance. The sudden introduction of flashbacks to a tragedy in Carter’s Civil War career comes as an odd intrusion—the movie has already introduced too many different time periods at this point as it is—but it pays off in the middle of the film when Stanton orchestrates the flashbacks as part of a huge battle sequence and turns the mixture of images into a symphony. He even manages an Outlaw Josey Wales reference.

It’s unfortunate that Disney chose to unveil in the second trailer a significant portion of the arena battle with Tars Tarkas and John Carter on one side and two giant white apes on the other, because it’s the action highlight of the film and a fist-pumping rush that should’ve been kept a better secret. This is exactly what an Edgar Rice Burroughs arena fight should feel like, and its conclusion is a blood-soaked surprise.

All the action moments work, especially because they never drag on too long. They kick in, give the thrill, hurl a twist, and then get out before wearing down the audience. The finale almost risks going too long, but the only mistake it ends up making is that even for someone well-versed in Barsoomian politics, it is difficult to separate the different battling red-Martian groups. This is the place where general viewers will likely say, “Wait, who’s fight who?” The editing puts enough focus on the main characters that the jumbled melee around them doesn’t ruin the scene. The costuming could’ve made the different sides clearer.

John Carter ends at the exact right spot, with The Gods of Mars primed to go. I hope viewers leave the theater riled up to see what happens next, because if Andrew Stanton gets to make The Gods of Mars, I think he will blow our minds. And I want to see what he does with the carnivorous plant men!

“Write a book,” John Carter tells his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’m thankful the real Burroughs took his advice. And I’m thankful that Andrew Stanton filmed that great feat of imagination, a milestone in literature of the fantastic, and he did it right.

Technical Note: I saw John Carter in IMAX 3D at a proper IMAX theater — one with a sixty-foot screen. The film was not shot in the 70mm IMAX format, but still benefits from the giant screen. The post-process 3D, however, is unimpressive and adds nothing to the film. See a 2D presentation if possible.