Contents ©2012 Mike Pascale (All art/photos © their respective owners.)
Okay, I finally got to see Disney’s “Mars-less” John Carter. (NO spoilers.) Apparently thanks to the lack of success of last year’s Mars Needs Moms, the studio decided to leave off that last bit of the title which tells you it’s science fiction/fantasy and to expect lots of action, creatures and special effects. In other words, the Disney braintrust figured it would be better to put it in the same category as such other fantasy blockbusters with nondescript-name-titles like Michael Clayton, Charlie Bartlett, Billy Elliot and Erin Brockevich. Yeah, good move there. Worked well, eh?
(Curiously, Entertainment Weekly ran a chart of ten recent films that took place on Mars, and only one or two did well at the box office, the only blockbuster being everyone’s favorite Austrian baby-daddy governor Arnold’s Total Recall. Which proves that the folks at EW clearly have too much time on their hands!)
For background: If you want to immerse yourself in interviews with director/co-writer Andrew Stanton about the making of the film, there’s a 17 minute video interview here and a lengthy written one here.
Just so you know where I’m coming from, my only exposure to the source material (the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs [ERB] novel, A Princess Of Mars) was the old Marvel comics series back in the late 70s, and a few of the DC attempts in the same decade. (Am I dating myself? Hey, how do you know I didn’t find them in a dusty back-issue bin a couple years ago? Oh, never mind.) I have no memory of those comics other than JC (the pulp hero, not the Biblical one) and the Thark named Tars Tarkis being close friends/battle mates, and princess Dejah Thoris being the requisite hottie.
What I remember most is the marvelous (pun-pardon) Gil Kane and Rudy Nebres artwork. (Thankfully, I acquired my first and only Kane/Nebres page just last year, from the same series.) And of course, the standard-setting Frazetta’s masterworks for the Doubleday versions of the novels, along with the beautiful Ace paperback covers by his friend/mentor, Roy Krenkel. (I’m stealing a bunch of images to post throughout, just because they’re better than any movie could ever hope to be.) For history buffs, Frank Miller’s first Marvel work was on that title.
The point is, to me, and probably most movie-goers, this was a new franchise with little expectations. Early reviews didn’t sound great, and I went in with very low expectations.
Current reviews have been mixed, with the negative ones getting the most attention. Probably due to the disappointing box office take; once the media smells disappointment (as it does with success), it will milk that for all its worth.
One sterling example is from EW’s Owen “Which end is my elbow, again?” Gleiberman, someone who has proven several times he knows less than Google about comics, science fiction, fantasy and most pop culture. This is the same genius who gave Captain America a “B-” and Human Centipede 2 a “B+“. He said the Cap movie–which took place during WW II–had values that were too outdated (no one was patriotic in Owen’s 1940s). He also called last summer a “glut of comic-book superhero movies” and the Green Hornet–a non-super detective character created on radio–one of those “comic-book superheroes”. So there’s his credibility.
Good ol’ Owen had a few good points, but came off as just another jaded critic. His grade? “D”. He didn’t mention that ERB also created Tarzan, thinks John Carter is a superhero too, and spent half a paragraph droning about his “one effective super-power” being “he can take flying leaps, like a long jumper,” calling it “more than a little dorky.” I guess glib Gleiberman fell asleep because Carter’s leaps are much more like The Hulk’s (half a mile and more), and he clearly has super strength, which he uses effectively throughout. He gave it a “D.” Much worse than sadistic scat-porn like Human Centipede. What movie did he see? (Or maybe I should ask, what the hell happened in his childhood?)
On the other end of the spectrum, artist/writer/comics creator/royalty Terry Beatty posted positively on his Facebook page:
“Honestly — this is the best film version of an Edgar Rice Burroughs story ever — and as far as I’m concerned, one of the best fantasy adventure movies ever made. I loved every minute of it and can’t wait to see it again — with Erika along for the ride. If I’d seen this as a twelve year old kid, my brain would have exploded. As is, my inner twelve year old is happier than he’s been in years. There were moments that had me misty eyed and moments that had me laughing — and one particular moment that had my jaw firmly on the floor. I came away thrilled and elated. I look forward to sharing this one with my kids when they are old enough to see it. Those who are too jaded and cynical to enjoy something this wonderful have my sympathies — and I thank my lucky stars I’m not among their number. Thanks to Andrew Stanton and all involved for bringing one of my childhood favorites to the screen in a way that respected the source material and did the story and character justice. Bravo!”
Terry astutely pointed out that we haven’t seen any toys/action figures/merchandising from the films grace the shelves of major retailers. Huh? Disney miss an opportunity to milk a franchise for extra cash? What planet am I on? Can’t be Jarsoom. (That’s earth in the film.) Conspiracy theorists, there’s your fodder. Perhaps Disney wanted this to fail, or didn’t care, but who knows why? Pixar politics? I sure hope not. Stanton has proved himself a winner with Wall-E and Finding Nemo. I hope there’s no sandbagging here.
Another factual tidbit ignored by EW and its haters: almost 1,000 Yahoo! users gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars: better than most current movies playing!
It seems most of the negative ones come from jaded “professional” critics, and those who focus mainly on box office receipts. If a film doesn’t make millions in profits, it must be a failure. (Which would apply to many Oscar-winners, by the way.) The positive ones seem to come from those familiar with ERB (another Facebook review from a Frazetta/ERB fan was overwhelmingly positive) and those whose inner child hasn’t yet left the house to join the military. So consider that before you decide to see it or not.
Some positives for me were the following:
- Visuals. CGI and motion-capture were well done. The baby Tharks are adorable. I disliked the adult versions in the previews but they grew on me in the film and were fine overall. The creatures especially were Pixar-perfect, showing Stanton’s obsessive attention to detail and accuracy (right down to running saliva in deep shadow). Unlike the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and most other CG beasts, these all had a delicious, realistic weight and gravity to them. (Ironic, considering Mars has much less gravity than Earth. Um, I mean Barsoom and Jarsoom.)
- Locations. Most of the outdoor Martian scenes were shot in Utah and it showed. I did think it was Arizona and the Grand Canyon at first, but parts of Utah are similar as both states share a border. Having shot commercials in both states, I can easily see them as perfect for Mars. (Tho they could have used more of a red tint.)
- Arena scene. My favorite of the film. The white apes are spectacular. There’s a showdown with one of the bad guys that’s refreshingly, unexpectedly and hilariously short.
- Humor. Not as much as a Marvel film, but what they had was rather funny. Especially the running “Virginia” gag.
- Voices. All sounded appropriate. Taylor Kitsch’s Carter has the now-standard raspy Batman voice, but it wasn’t too overblown. Listen for these Tharks: Thomas Hayden Church as a big bad one, Iron Man director/actor Jon Favreau as a bookie, and Friends alum David Schwimmer (!) as a young green warrior.
- Emotions. I felt some of the emotional scenes more than I expected; there were a couple sad ones, and those with bullies and frustration always get to me. But they didn’t come off as annoyingly manipulative.
- The dog! John Carter had a giant, beefy, super-fast Martian bulldog named Woola. So-ugly-he’s-cute type. I want one.
- The film dedication to Steve Jobs. Classy.
- The inclusion of ERB himself as a character! Fun. Is it in the book?
- Not having read the books, the plot seemed a bit hard to follow and complex. (Screenplay was by Stanton, Mark Andrews and comic-book-inspired novelist Michael Chabon.) I still have no idea who/what the Therns were and what they really do. Then again, it’s entirely possible I’ve been rendered dumber by being spoon-fed plots from studio films over the last twenty years.
- As with most fantasy/sci-fi stories (Dune, Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, etcetera), many of the made-up names were hard to figure out or discern. It took me almost half the movie to figure out that a “Jeddak” was any Martian king and not a name or generic title! Star Wars and Star Trek seem much better at this sort of thing, though.
- I’ve been ruined by Frazetta’s Dejah Thoris. Lynn Collins is a beautiful and talented actress (and the ocean-blue contact lenses were a nice touch), but she’s no Frank female.
- The oceans supposedly dried up but there’s a massive river important to the Tharks, and everyone has drinking water, despite the river being several days’ journey. I found out from a website that water is actually piped from the polar ice caps to fertile lands in vast canals and the atmosphere is continually regenerated with giant “terraforming” installations. But if any of that was even hinted at in this film, I missed it.
- No less than four times did John catch a falling Dejah Thoris. I know Carter is a hero, but good grief! I know the story was written a century ago but this behavior could have been updated.
- This isn’t the movie’s fault, but my pal and Bru-Hed cover artist Dean Armstrong brought up the fact that the anatomy of the four-armed Tharks really doesn’t make sense. The shoulder muscles (deltoids) and chest muscles (pectorals) are partially connected to the clavicle. (You can’t raise your arms without moving your collar bone.) So how does that work on the Tharks? In the film, the movement of the lower set of arms often mirrored that of the upper ones, but not always. Why?
- Pet peeve: the credits scrolled by too quickly, and too many names were grouped together to read most. I didn’t realize that aesthetically creative whiz Wayne Barlowe was one of several concept artists employed.
So, overall, I give it a solid 7 out of 10. Worth a matinee in 2-D. The middle dragged a bit but the beginning, climax and ending were worthwhile.
Would Frazetta and Krenkel have liked it? Would Burroughs? I wish I knew. Perhaps it would have been cooler as all CG or rotoscoped animation like Frank’s Fire And Ice. It would definitely make a great animated show and video game. And yes, I want the action figures.
But if you really want to experience the beauty and wonder of John Carter and ERB’s Mars, just pick up a Frazetta book. You should read ERB’s words too, of course, but Frank’s paintings are enough for me. (What’s a picture’s worth? In Frazetta’s case, a novel.) For more of his images, go to this ERBzine site.
P.S.: If you want to see how I would handle John Carter, sexy and strong Dejah Thoris, Tarzan or any ERB character, Just ask Craig here.