Saturday, June 9, 2012

John Carter (a.k.a. John Carter of Mars) (Disney, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

John Carter was intended as a major blockbuster release by the Walt Disney studio and ended up doing so poorly at the box office the Disney company took a write-off of $200 million (more than the annual gross domestic product of some countries!) on it, though the page on it listed a worldwide gross of $179,300,000 as of March 20 and an estimated production budget of $250 million (the usual rule of thumb is that a film has to gross twice its production cost to make a profit — the extra represents advertising and distribution costs — though I’m not sure it actually costs $250 million to advertise and distribute a $250 million movie where it only costs $50 million to advertise and distribute a $50 million movie, so I suspect Disney’s losses weren’t anywhere near $200 million and the film, while a money-loser, was not an epic flop on the order of Heaven’s Gate or Cutthroat Island). John Carter began life as a pulp-fiction serial by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who actually appears as a character in the film, played by Daryl Sabara) called Under the Moons of Mars, published in six parts in Munsey’s All-Story in 1911 and later reprinted as a book under the title A Princess of Mars. It was Burroughs’ first major success, though it would be vastly overshadowed by another book he published in Munsey’s All-Story a year later, Tarzan of the Apes (and when Burroughs, who was savvier on business issues than most pulp writers, got the original contract for Tarzan from Munsey he noted it called for the assignment of “all rights” to the story in exchange for Burroughs’ payment: he crossed out “all rights” and wrote in “first pulp rights only,” and with that stroke of his pen he eventually became a multimillionaire). Burroughs did well enough with the Mars books that he wrote 10 sequels to A Princess of Mars — though the later ones, like the later entries in his 24-book Tarzan series, are generally considered hackier than the earlier ones and clearly the work of a writer who was just churning them out for the money. (He also did two other science-fiction series, one set on Pellucidar — a separate world supposedly existing inside the Earth — and one set on Venus.)

The first attempt to put Burroughs’ Mars books on screen was started in 1931 by cartoonist Bob Clampett (later the man behind the Looney Tunes series at Warner Bros.), but it fell through and the project pretty much languished until the early 1980’s, when filmmakers inspired by the success of the Star Wars movies (which owed quite a lot to Burroughs’ ideas!) took another look at the Mars property. Unfortunately the Star Wars movies had strip-mined Burroughs’ books so thoroughly that at least one major filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis, turned down the project because he figured audiences would think it was a rip-off of Star Wars instead of a story written 65 years before the release of the first Star Wars movie. John Carter of Mars, as the Disney studio retitled it (after they had owned the rights in the 1980’s, then sold them to Paramount, then bought them back), finally saw the light of day as a movie in 2011, when director Andrew Stanton — who came over from Disney’s highly successful Pixar digital-animation unit, where he’d co-directed A Bug’s Life and directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E but had never before made a live-action film — worked from a script he wrote with Mark Andrews, with a revision by Michael Chabon (author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the latter a thinly veiled fictionalization of the lives of the creators of Superman), that (according to Charles, who’s read most if not all of the Burroughs Mars novels) pretty freely mixed and matched from Burroughs’ Mars books instead of just picking one and doing a straight adaptation of it. The result was a perfectly watchable modern-style action-adventure movie in which John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) starts the film (apparently) dead in his home in upstate New York in 1881. He was a former Confederate cavalry officer who somehow acquired a vast store of wealth after the Civil War and traveled around the world as an amateur archaeologist, and he’s willed his entire fortune to his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), and the bequest includes a journal that supposedly tells his strangest adventure of all.

As Burroughs reads this tome, the film flashes back to 1868, when Carter was an ex-Confederate fugitive from Yankee justice in territorial Arizona, and an ex-Union officer named Powell (Bryan Cranston) was determined to kidnap him and get him to join the U.S. army in its war against the Apache Indians. Carter, like a Humphrey Bogart character at the start of one of his movies, is sick of fighting (and watching other people die) for “causes” and is bound and determined not to stick his neck out again — indeed, in his relentless rejection of all authority he sounds like a modern-day anarchist — only he stumbles on a cave full of gold that also contains a magic medallion that teleports him to Mars — or, as its inhabitants call it, “Barsoom.” (Their name for Earth is “Jasoom.”) Mars — oops, Barsoom — is in the middle of a civil war started by the evil rulers of a movable city called Zodanga, who as the Barsoomian parts of this film begin has either conquered or destroyed every other city on Barsoom except Helium, whose ruler has promised the hand of his daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to Zodanga’s king, Sab Than (Dominic West), in hopes that by allying himself with Zodanga he can get Sab Than to spare Helium and its inhabitants. What he doesn’t know — and neither do we until about three-quarters of the way through the film — is that Sab Than intends not to consummate the marriage but to murder his new bride and thereby intimidate the rest of Barsoom into total submission.

He’s actually being guided in this by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), a mysterious being who can instantly teleport and shape-shift — who’s essentially a Yoda-type character, but on the side of evil, which is probably the biggest single jar in this movie from anyone coming to it via Star Wars, and it’s only about three-quarters of the way through that Shang’s role is explained as an Adjustment Bureau-style intervention in the affairs of various planets: their people get the various planets to destroy themselves by provoking groups in their populations to wage war against other groups. The Zodangans and Helians actually look like Earthlings — their skins are supposed to be red but they just looked sunburned to me — but there are other sentient beings on Barsoom who don’t, namely the Tharks, who are tall, elongated, green and have four arms instead of the humanoid regulation two. (One even says, as a proverb, “I’d cut off both my right arms rather than … ”) There’s also a slug-like creature which is apparently the Barsoomian equivalent of a dog — at least one fastens onto John Carter and becomes his special pet for the rest of the film. The plot barely makes sense and the gibberish names Burroughs gave the Barsoomians tend to blend together on the soundtrack, but plot is not the point of a film like this and the parts that do matter, the action scenes, are neatly and spectacularly done: John Carter is given the power to do spectacular jumps (because Mars has only about half the gravity of earth, though the wire-work necessary for Taylor Kitsch — and apparently it was he, not a stunt double, through much of the film — to do the jumps on-screen, required him to wear a harness that allowed him to reach free-fall speeds of up to 80 miles an hour before bringing him to a rather jarring stop, and not surprisingly Kitsch found the experience unpleasant) and the film exploits this as well as Kitsch’s overall good looks (he’s not as drop-dead gorgeous as Chris Hemsworth was in Thor but he’s still a nice hunk of man-meat).

John Carter — the title was abbreviated at the last minute after Disney executives, worried that they had just had two flops with the word “Mars” in their titles (including one, a sci-fi spoof called Mars Needs Moms, a title which seemed calculated to drive potential ticket-buyers away rather than draw them in!), decided at the last minute to drop the M-word, thereby eliminating the draw to science-fiction fans (including all the Burroughs buffs out there — there’s still a formidable cult around this writer and a lot of people would probably have bought tickets to this movie if the publicity for it had let them know that Burroughs’ Mars books were finally hitting the silver screen) while not bringing in anybody else — is a perfectly acceptable modern-day action-adventure movie, and though it’s hardly in the same league in terms of quality as the similarly plotted Avatar (which was made with enough compassion and depth that it reached masterpiece status, to my mind the finest science-fiction film made since 2001: A Space Odyssey) there doesn’t seem to be any real reason why this movie should have been a mega-bomb when other similar films released in the last few years have been substantial hits. It is a movie that borrows from a lot of other, earlier films — including the whole there’s-no-place-like-home quest gimmick from a novel even older than A Princess of Mars, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz — as well as some long, soulful clips of Taylor Kitsch staring into both Earth’s and Barsoom’s deserts, one of which led me to joke, “Lawrence of Mars.” But that’s hardly unusual in these self-referential days, in which film writers and directors sometimes seem to be inserting these references deliberately to show off how “cool” they are. I liked John Carter of Mars, though the plot is confusing enough that this is one film that makes you want to read the original books not to see what nuances the author was able to communicate in print that were lost in the film adaptation, but simply to figure out who is who, what side they’re on and what’s supposed to be happening in this convoluted story that makes J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings seem a model of clarity by comparison!