John Carter [of Mars]

March 10th, 2012 | Tags: , ,

The Sidhe has quite a familiarity with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work, and she was the one who turned my head toward the trailers that started showing about this Disney film. I have not yet read anything related to Barsoom, though that will very soon change–but the imagery in the trailer alone was enough to drop my jaw despite the jaded approach I take toward movies these days. I respect good animation even if a story is off, but throw the idea of Mars in there and I’m sold. What can I say? I’m a nerd. :) So I familiarized myself to a very limited extent with Burroughs’ general ouvre, mostly through discussions with the Sidhe. And then we watched a terrible SyFy-quality direct-to-landfill adaptation, which would have been abominable if it weren’t awful. My (somewhat long) review of the far superior Disney production follows.

In the run-up to the movie, the twitterverse was abuzz with the…lack of buzz about John Carter. The prevailing sentiment was that Disney must be afraid that it’s terrible, so they’re not marketing it. And my friends (one in particular) were somewhat skeptical that Disney could do it proper justice. Fortunately, the lack of hype is very much undeserved. You don’t need to know anything about Barsoom to get into it, but Disney still did a bang-up job of not insulting the audience’s intelligence along the way. It is an SF romp of the best sort–pulpy, full of character, and exploratory in that brisk, keep up or get left behind pace that is a hallmark of the genre.

So the venue we took it in was the Six Forks cinema, a fairly old-school movie house (by modern lights). No stadium seating, and the theaters only seat, like, 150 people. But–and maybe this is a North Carolina thing–they served beer on tap! And it wasn’t just AB-InBev/MillerCoors swill, either! Seriously. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale AND Yuengling! They were out of the SNPA, so I went with Yuengling. $6 for a proper pint, but I’m not complaining in the least. Final words about the venue: they were clean, and didn’t run stupid slides in the theater while we waited for the show. And hooray beer!

I jotted some notes down while watching. Amidst all the other thoughts that rise up when trying to sum up the movie, the best word to use is coherent. Its narrative structure is solid, and it retains forward momentum at a freewheeling pace, characters coming and going, without blundering about. Things are thought of that should be thought of. And for that I am supremely grateful. So many movies fail that test–many of them aimed squarely at me. No seams show, and perhaps that’s just my lowered standards that allow me to derive pleasure from such a simple fact. Moreover, its plot is far from straightforward, though it does have its boy meets girl/boy gets girl/boy loses girl/boy wins girl arc that is classic Disney. Lots of moving parts in this flick, both metaphorically and literally. It’s set in a fairly standard trope–hey, look, I found this book written by my mysteriously-dead uncle, wherein I can relate to you what he experienced. And it all resolves nice and clean; it’s not what some people might call gripping or complex. But within and without the confines of the story’s frame, there’s twists and turns that keep you guessing.

The little details are just as coherent as the larger scope. The machinery is rife with steampunk motifs that gel very well with the movie’s American post-Civil War historical setting, and the flying ships evoke humanity’s early designs while still seeming incredibly more advanced. My favorite design is the helm of the larger ships. They have not just a sailing ship’s wheel that the helmsman would turn by means of handles on the outside–but a truly great wheel whose circumference the helmsman stands inside. It gives you the sense that the wheel is connected in a very physical sense to the workings of the flying machine, but in a manner far beyond our feeble efforts. It is simple and grand and wondrous and alien all at the same time. So, too, are the ethnic differences of the non-humans in the film. Perhaps a little too pointedly, the ways of the Thark people are, well, not John Carter’s. And somehow, they’re still sentient, organized, and believable. Even the other “humans” aren’t a culture John Carter can blend in with–a misread offer of a handshake yields unexpectedly rich humor.

The film’s mood, if not its plot, has surprising depth. Its brooding tone (with a score to match) is not completely heavy-handed, but loss is a major theme for every character, and their responses to it as the plot rolls on are telling. I confess that the strings of my heart were pulled at a number of points! There’s so much I want to say about it, but ultimately, it’s worth going to see for yourself. It’s gorgeous, like a gem, formed whole and then carved into crystalline brilliance by a watchful eye and a careful hand. There are some criticisms to reckon with, most prominently an utter lack of ethnic diversity in the cast, but that’s a meta-quibble that I do not feel detracts from the movie’s main purpose. It’s spectacle, lovingly rendered on the big screen. The production is top-notch at every angle. It makes you want to just drink it in from the word go, a fitting metaphor for the parched planet that is the setting for most of the movie. And then it lets you.

A few more spoilery thoughts follow.

No, really, we’re talking multiple SF story spoilers below, so stop reading if you want to watch the movie without an overlay set in place.

Last warning. OK, here we go. Highlight to read:

This movie has Vorlons :-D

  1. March 10th, 2012 at 07:08
    Reply | Quote | #1

    I like it, too. For those who’ve read the books, yes, Disney changed things. There are scenes and characterization differences, and I was prepared to be annoyed about them. These changes though are often for the better and make Burroughs’ work flow better for a modern audience.