Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter of Mars

I recently saw John Carter of Mars and I'm glad I didn't listen to the critical reviews.  It's much better than I would have thought if I only based on those write-ups.  Here's my rundown including the pros and cons for the movie: 
The Good and a Little Bad:
At 132 minutes, the movie is a little long and compared to most action/adventure & SciFi, the pacing is slow.  I'm OK with that though, given the source material.  They did a very good job of setting the story up for anyone who hasn't read the first book ("A Princess of Mars"), or the entire John Carter series.  (Interestingly, it's the final book in the 11 volume set that's titled "John Carter of Mars".)  I asked my wife when we were on our way home what she would have cut out of the movie if she had to make it a 90-110 minutes.  She said she really couldn't think of what to cut out.  I can't either.
We saw it in glorious 2D (yep, skipped out on the extra cost for 3D) and the effects were fantastic.  The viewer definitely gets what the studio paid for in terms of quality CGI.  I can only assume the 3D version of the film is equally good for those who are 3D fans. 
Taylor Kitsch did fine as John Carter.  Seems most of the negative reviews about him are unwarranted.  I'm not familiar with all the baggage that many reviewers seem to attribute to him and suspect it clouded their view.  I don't really know who the guy is and thought he was believable (and for me, unknown) enough not to distract from the story.  I went in cautiously about whether or not Lynn Collins could be Dejah Thoris.  She did great.  Again, completely believable.  (Honestly, based on her description as written by ERB, there isn't an actress alive who could probably play her based on the required beauty.  Lynn rocked the part.)

The movie had the Disney touch in that there were little glimpses of humor sprinkled throughout and violence was very rarely graphic.  The battle scenes were a blast and not over the top.  Most violent scenes happened off camera but in a manner that you knew exactly what was happening.  The most graphic scene was when John Carter defeats a second Great White Ape in an arena.  I won't spoil the scene though by saying what happens.
The ships were cool and made me want to see more and know more about how they work.
We rolled the dice since the babysitter fell through and took our son.  Normally we don't let him see things that are PG or PG-13 unless we've seen them first.  No surprise: he was bored with parts of the movie, loved the battle scenes and the scenes when John Carter jumps around.  On the way out he told me there were a few scary parts, but he was never scared, and he was bouncing around like a boy who just saw a man who could leap like a superhero.  He loved the calot (the "dog") in the movie.  My dog is now paying the price as my son won't stop trying to get her to follow him around, lick him, etc.  And best of all, driving home he told my wife and I, "I want to live on Mars so I can marry Dejah Thoris."  (That's my boy!)
The Ugly:
So what went wrong?  Several things that contributed to the John Carter the box office flop.  First, Disney completely messed this up and is now paying the price (literally).  All the advertisements, with the exception of a few that came late in the game, make this movie look more like a science fiction victorian drama rather than an action/adventure.  From what I saw, it seemed once they began highlighting the movie as an action/adventure story, chatter seemed to move a bit toward the positive, but it seemed to be too late.  Oddly, very late in the game, Disney decided to release the first 10 minutes of the movie in an apparent attempt to generate interest.  Regardless of why they actually did it, it looked desperate, and it made things worse.  The first 10 minutes of the movie reinforce the perception that the movie was a victorian drama first, and only had elements of action or adventure woven into the story.  I think Disney corporately didn’t appreciate the story, and their marketing department had no idea how to present it to the paying public.
For all the reasons many of us like Disney, they were the wrong studio to make this movie.  The original story is violent, depicting a world at war.  Probably because of the time is was written, I think fits in the young adult bucket by today’s standards.  That said, Burroughs left the most graphic violence to the reader’s imagination, as well as the most passionate of love scenes.  But the story is very violent, and it’s fairly dark, making the heroic and passionate scenes seem so much brighter and hopeful.
My last thought about what went wrong has to do with social commentary.  One thing that always seems to be present in great science fiction stories is commentary about things in society that aren’t being openly discussed.  Within the space opera slice of the genre, just consider the amazingly strong statements made through the original Star Trek series and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.  The collective John Carter story captured in the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs is replete with commentary about lots tough issues: honor, where to place loyalty, patriotism and identity, and perhaps most significantly: race and racial relations.  For the most part, all this was absent or only hinted at.  Not to be overly critical though, there’s only so much depth a studio can establish in a single film, but this element was key to what Burroughs did as he told John Carter’s story.
RECOMMENDATION:  I definitely recommend this movie to SciFi fans.  If you have the spare cash, it's a great flick to see on a theater-sized screen, but not a movie I'd put in the "must see in a theater" category.  Do the 2D or 3D thing based on personal preference.  Just keep in mind, if you're not an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, you probably won't like the movie.  If you're not familiar with the original story but are intrigued by what you’ve seen and heard, understand that you're walking into a reasonably well done 2012 movie version of a story written in 1917.  Still gun-shy about seeing it in a theater?   Don’t worry about it and wait to rent it when it comes to DVD and BlueRay.
As for the original series of books, they’re collectively in my top five and helped establish and shape my love for the science fiction genre.  I have the whole set, published by Del Rey and each is somewhere between 150-250 pages.  They're quick and entertaining reads.  Even if the movie isn't for you, the paperbacks are inexpensive.  Grab 'em and  enjoy an amazing story and a piece of classic SciFi! 
It’s great to be a dad!

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