Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Scorned of Mars

Speaking of distant planets, which I always feel like I’m doing whenever I speak of whatever passes for “normality” in this world, one of the pleasures of John Carter is sitting back and watching other critics (including some pretty high-powered ones) fall all over each other trying to make Uranus out of themselves.

Because some of them did try to insist that the movie was in some way a rip-off The Matrix, or Star Wars, or was “influenced” by many a melange of the other big-budget, rock-the-theater, CGI summer-stock tentpole Fantasy Spectaculars that have become Hollywood’s bread and butter since Star Wars and Jaws essentially rewrote the Hollywood DNA all those years ago in those still-naive, still-exciting summers of the seventies. 
Of course the truth is the reverse and ninety percent of everything that we've seen in this genre over the last quarter-century is indebted to some extent to the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, also the creator of Tarzan and the Pellucidar series and other lesser known pulp adventure romps. Even A Princess of Mars (the first novel of the series, upon which John Carter is more or less based) didn’t start it all -- but Burroughs combined a wild imagination with an instinct for narrative suspense, a masterful ability to write action, and a shrewd sword-thrust to the reader’s libido.
The problem with John Carter the movie, aside from two things that I’ll get to at the end of this piece, is that it arrives too late. So many movies have so shamelessly stolen from ERB over the years, that John Carter of Mars (to give the title revealed in the closing credits), appearing after something like fifty years of the ultimate, most prolonged Development Hell ever (Bob Clampett was trying to make an animated movie version as far back as the ‘40s. Since then, I do believe that somebody, somewhere, has been trying to get this movie made virtually all the time, and the rights have bounced from studio to studio, from creative team to creative team. The Burroughs estate must have loved this, since they always got paid for the option and never had to deal with a lousy movie damaging the property), is forced into the unenviable position of seeming like a rehash of things that we have seen before, of seeming to steal from itself. 
And so even fans of the original books, which are marvelous by the way, especially if you are thirteen years old, may have to remind themselves from time to time as the movie unfolds that this, at last, is the real deal, and we should not fault John Carter just because we are exhausted by the onslaught of big-budget CGI spectaculars.
What’s evident from the opening scenes is that this picture has been made by people who know and love the books. The plot details may not jibe exactly with A Princes of Mars, the actors and the settings and the visualization may not look exactly like the characters and the places that you had in mind when you read those same books all those years ago -- but how could they? As witness the many artists who have illustrated Burroughs over the years, especially including Frank Frazetta, ERB left a lot open to interpretation, which is part of what drew us into his stories in the first place: he had a knack for making us an active participant in the story. That said, The filmmakers cannot possibly please all the fans; but they have done a remarkable job trying, because they are fans themselves. 
Just as it should, the movie begins in Civil War-era USA, with Burroughs himself discovering the story as it is passed down to him in a wonderful journal. It’s this framing device that gives the story its central Romantic tragedy, one that allowed Burroughs to end his first novel on a cliffhanger (which the filmmakers thankfully have chosen not to do, as I doubt there will be a sequel) and that ultimately gives the movie its heart: because you can’t have a Real Romance, can you, without having something to tear it asunder. Other critics complained that this device made the movie overlong and shattered its focus: I insist that it gives the picture its heart. 
Because the Mars novels are Romances, first and foremost. That they take place on another world and are populated by eight-armed tharks and mad scientists and giant wooly monsters only makes the mushy stuff go down easy for boy readers. There are also themes of loyalty, devotion and elements of charm that you will not find in modern fantasies. It’s not all blood and thunder. At its core, underneath the spectacle, John Carter is humane.
Of the casting, I originally had my doubts. But even with his unfortunate last name, Taylor Kitsch won me over both as the burned-out Civil War veteran and the rejuvenated warrior of Mars ultimately motivated to new heights by the most unexpected and powerful of loves. As the object of that love, Lynn Collins technically only had to be “incomparable,” as that’s how the princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, is described over and over again in the books. She is that -- oh boy, is she ever -- but she takes it one step further, and one look at her resume tells me why (it’s up at Go look it up for yourself). 
In the end, John Carter is a solid entertainment in its own right and a real pleasure for fans of the books, brought down by a lousy title and a marketing campaign that really fell down in its duty. When you’ve got a property like the Mars books, part of the job of the marketing department is to educate that part of the public that never heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs. You can do this in two sentences. There is a fan-produced trailer out there on the interwebs that is miles, light years, better than the ones that came out of the Disney marketing department. 
You need to let people know, first, that Edgar Rice Burroughs is the creator of Tarzan. You need to let people know, second, that from this unique talent came a story that inspired every fantasy that has graced the screen since. You need to let people know, third, that one of the most beloved fantasy series of all time is finally coming to the screen. And then you need to show Lynn Collins in all her red-skinned, tattooed glory, standing against the Martian suns. After that, all you need to do is simply say:
A Princess of Mars.
-- Freder.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...