11 March 2012

First Impressions: John Carter

It is looking like we'll look back on this weekend as a rather infamous one in box office history. Maybe. After months of Disney giving the world a clinic in terrible advertising, John Carter (2012) landed, stumbled, and fell to a fiery, crocodile-filled death. Coming in around $30 million right now on a reported $250 million budget, it seems fairly painful. This is a shame because John Carter is a great piece of sci-fi that deserves more than that.

The issue comes right down to the last minute title change. What was once John Carter of Mars (2012) became John Carter, because recent pics with "Mars" in the title like the atrocious Mars Needs Moms (2011) did poorly. Mars Needs Moms did not do poorly because of the "Mars," folks, there are hundreds of reasons for that one. It's unfortunate because it's based on a lesser known, century-old literary property that has inspired many science fiction works since and its massive bombing surely leads to the specious reasoning that more movies "from the Hasbro company that brought you Transformers" need to happen. Atrocious.

So let's get to it. First of all, for some reason we have a little mini-reunion from the cast of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) with Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Silverfox (Lynn Collins) taking the leads here. Kitsch seems to very much still be in Gambit mode, from the scowl to the rebel independence and even the hair. He's almost a spin on a classic heroic archetype, though. He's ultimately an anti-hero with suppressed altruistic qualities that take their sweet time in bubbling to the surface. He's grim but with a natural playful quality that prevents him from entering Worthington or Bale territory. He's a fine hero, unsure of himself, makes some big mistakes (occasionally comical and trope-shifting), but ultimately saves the day.

Lynn Collins was pretty hot in Wolverine, but she really flexes her Babe Potential here. I can't go on enough about how hot this chick is, with a few down-shirt shots, one pretty good spinning butt shot, and some pokey nipples in one scene. Beyond the perversion though, she's also a great strong female character. The movie is interesting actually, in that since Carter is from the mid-19th Century South, he naturally begins to treat her as a defenseless maiden and is willing to step in and defend her. Mars seems to be progressive, though, with huge Babe Armies and Lynn as Dejah Thoris is more than capable of defending herself. She also regrets her own revealing wardrobe, which is notably something that Leia never did. She's a babe, but more importantly she does stuff - her character is actually important independent of the male protagonist (and antagonist) and has her own fleshed out needs, desires, abilities, and capabilities. Where's the last Sci-Fi Flick to really have that?

I was also impressed that the movie had a huge race full of alien, reptile things who had females and those females didn't have titties. Yes, I'm glad they didn't - so often there's some kind of Bird People or Lizard People who have these big fat titties for no reason at all. It doesn't make any sense. Of course, if John Carter didn't fulfill the need to see great titties all the time through Lynn Collins' presence, this would have been much more infuriating. It's just another thing that this film does very well. And I don't mean to be sexist but as a dude titties ARE great and it influences what movies I see constantly. Never bet against the pervert dollar.

So anyway, beyond those two the rest of the cast is solid. There is the requisite amount of motion capture performances, but they all feel pretty authentic, and the visual effects and scope are top-notch. It's got a lot of people who have shown up before, like that Asshole Captain from The Matrix Reloaded (2003), that douchebag from Resident Evil (2001), and the Spy Kid who I think of more now from World's Greatest Dad (2009), which is weird to picture now. Bryan Cranston shows up as a Badass Union Colonel and Mark Strong plays a bad guy! Unbelievable, folks!

There's a lot to this that just feels like a classic sci-fi experience. It's all New Sincerity. There isn't a lot of pain or grit here. It would seem an ample opportunity to introduce waves upon waves of eager, spendthrift youth. It's a space adventure without the spaceships, and an easy-to-swallow premise with archetypal but fresh characters. There's just enough of everything here - big battles, fine pacing, mysteries that actually get solved neatly, and even some penance for the lead character, as Mark Strong says, he's really not that bright.

It's been far too long since a nice Sci-Fi ended on a feel-good wedding, which this almost does, which (SPOILER) doesn't end the film and instead naturally and logically dooms Carter into relaxing his guard and delaying his banging of Lynn Collins another thirteen years. The film strikes a fair tone through plenty of humour, badass big fights, and a good dose of drama. It takes its characters and premise seriously, even if it doesn't always take the same care with its narrative, providing for a more flexible, easy-going flow throughout its running time.

Now, having said all that, there are some issues here. For one, there is a ton of new shit to remember and they hit you with it about right of the bat. After years of Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and Chronicles of Riddick, and Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, it's tough to be assaulted suddenly with a swarm of new terms, languages, races, and civilisations. Still, you can get by with the just of it and once the movie starts jogging smoothly it flows naturally. It helps that the only planet is Mars, and the people really boil down to Red, Blue, Green. Fair 'nuff.

This brings us to what may be the most significant problem with adapting a 100-year old story, though. When A Princess of Mars was written in 1917 by Eddie Burrows, Mars was this far-off, mysterious planet that we knew a bit about but our imaginations were still able to run wild and picture this landscape. Star Wars and other stuff can work because it's happening in this firmly fictional, far off place. Even stuff like Minority Report (2002) that is set in the future has that going for it. Some of the wonder of Mars is gone now that we've actually, you know, been there. We know that none of that stuff up there is possible, so it takes quite a suspension of disbelief to achieve.

This is arguable. The fact that Muppets aren't real on Planet Earth didn't ruin The Muppets (2011). Still, there is something about presenting such a fantastic location that in in the past century has become much less fantastic that is lost in the set-up to this flick. We need to believe that this could be the Mars of Burrows or C.S. Lewis and in that regard the film doesn't quite match the imagination of a pre-Space Era.

Still, with an open mind and a willingness to get some spectacle and adventure, John Carter is an immensely satisfying film. It's a positive experience, with hot chicks, big monsters, big battles, and a fairly likeable Gambit-like Hero. With that on a movie poster it may have actually sold a ticket.

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