Friday, April 6, 2012

John Carter

2012, Andrew Stanton -- In Theatre

Maybe it's just me.  Maybe I'm just not wired right to enjoy the Barsoon stories as I've tried a few times recently to read A Princess of Mars, both the original text and the recent Dynamite Comics adaptation.  I made it roughly halfway through the novel and about four issues into the series before giving up.  Okay, that might not be fully accurate.  I actually did enjoy reading the stories, but, I gave up the comic series because I though spending $4 per issue on a story I could download for free from Project Gutenberg was a colossal waste of money, and I've just not managed to pick up reading the novel where I left off months ago.  Watching John Carter was the first time I made it through the story, and yet I could tell, even with my limited exposure, it was an inauthentic experience.

I have great respect for director Andrew Stanton's Pixar work, but all the seemingly effortless charm, warmth, emotion and adventure Stanton was able to create in Finding Nemo and Up is missing from John Carter, which is a labored over, convoluted, and exhausting envisioning of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars.  The first ten minutes alone is a dizzying whirlwind of exposition (detailing the history conflict between two of Mars' populations), an abrupt transition to turn-of-the-20th-century America where John Carter is followed by a typical Kafka-esque figure, a tedious introduction to Carter's nephew (Edgar Rice Burroughs) who is the inheritor of Carter's estate following his death, and then a narrative backtrack into Carter's past as a Confederate veteran and aspiring prospector.  It's a plodding half hour before Carter winds up on Mars, and while the intentions are there to establish Carter as a reluctant soldier and selfish warrior, it really serves to keep Carter an ambiguous protagonist, and not much of an enticing hero.

As, really, the first major planet-spanning sci-fi fantasy that both establishes alien settings and cultures, Burroughs' Barsoon series can no doubt be a major influence on much of the SF that followed it.  In this regard it's hard to damn John Carter as a film for feeling so derivative of works as disparate as Star Wars, Planet of the Apes and Masters of the Universe, and yet there's direly little that feels exciting or innovative throughout it's lengthy run time.

The major sticking point for purists seems to be the translation of the Therns, from a near-extinct, conniving, secretive, manipulative race to a mythical race of demi-gods with fantastical powers.  They stick out like an albino at a Black Panthers rally.  What I had hoped from John Carter would be more of a Sci-Fi/Western/Fantasy hybrid, and the religion and magic as introduced via the Therns perpetually feels like it was shoehorned in, continually steering the story away from what seems like its natural path.

The film seems to lack focus in general and if there's a theme to the film, I can't place it.  There's a love story, but it's not very central.  There's an aspect of family, but that's only touched upon tangentially.  There's a religious angle, but it seems more world building than a theme.  There's the old "what it means to be a hero" but John Carter never becomes the hero he seems like he should be (he's terminally self-serving, and we're supposed to like him, but being the only human of the picture he's quite hard to identify with).  There seems to be an anti-war screed somewhere within, but it's not committed to. There's preaching about separate races coming together, but if it was an intended allegory in 1912, it's kind of lost today.

The world of Barsoon is well established as a desert planet in the film, with the Tharks civilization building organically outward from it.  As such the metal, fabric, and super-science of Helium and Zodanga, in particular the film's Roman-influenced design, conflict with the setting.  There's obviously a great deal of money spent in bringing these environments and characters to life, and I guess it's praiseworthy that they succeed in making it all feel tangible rather than look just effects, but it still doesn't seem nearly as awe-inspiring or fantastical as it should.

Stanton's direction is serviceable and unobtrusive, but there's no style there either.  At times the film feels like an animated production, with characters expositing aloud frequently, which works with the separation from reality that animation provides but in a live action picture feels clunky and unnatural.  It's a shame after watching Brad Bird triumph with style transitioning to live action with Mission Impossible 4 that Stanton couldn't match him with John Carter.  It truly feels like the product of someone uncomfortable with the size, scope and format of the project before him.