Saturday, March 10, 2012

John Carter of Mars

John Carter of Mars (4/5)

Buried within Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original series of Barsoom novels hides the DNA of some of the most successful blockbusters of the past forty years.  Films like Star Wars and Avatar wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that Burroughs had already laid the groundwork in the early decades of the twentieth century.  So despite the fact that John Carter’s Martian adventures are a precursor to modern sci-fi and fantasy films, the first major movie adaptation of Burroughs’s work can’t help but feel like somewhat of a rehash.  But it is also difficult to hold this against a film that largely delivers on its promise of uncomplicated thrills. 

John Carter opens using a framing technique similar to the novel on which it is based, A Princess of Mars.  In the tradition of the “found text” narrative, Burroughs represented his novel as an extended story written down by his uncle, John Carter.  In the film, Burroughs is informed that his uncle has died, and he is summoned to his wealthy uncle’s sizable estate.  Upon arriving, Burroughs is told that he has become the executor of his uncle’s trust and is given a manuscript to pore over.  This manuscript, as you might surmise, is a recounting of Carter’s adventures on the red planet, or Barsoom, as the Martians call it.  Carter, it turns out, was once a prospector looking to strike it rich near Apache country.  Because of his former role in the Confederate cavalry, a local Indian fighter, Captain Powell, attempts to re-enlist him in his efforts to put down Apache resistance. 

The sit down between Powell and Carter turns into one of the film’s best visual gags, and the first indication that the director, Andrew Stanton, also helmed the Pixar classics Finding Nemo and Wall-E.  Carter eventually escapes from the cavalry fort and becomes embroiled in a firefight with a band of Apaches.  In his escape, Carter finds shelter in a cave where he encounters a Martian, and, after snatching a metallic piece of Martian technology, is whisked away out of the Arizona desert into the deserts of Barsoom.  The framing technique is somewhat convoluted, since we are first introduced to John Carter through Burroughs and then introduced to Carter proper on the frontier before he finally finds his way to Mars.  But it was smart for the filmmakers to keep the 19th century time frame.  In most science fiction films, the audience must suspend disbelief, but in a film based on early works of fantastical fiction like John Carter, there is a second layer of suspension of disbelief where the audience not only must believe in the fantastical, but they must also believe that the kind of absurdity we see in these stories is the sort of material for which a contemporary audience would have been willing to suspend disbelief. 

And once we get to Mars, there is, like in the novel, some enjoyably goofy conceits.  Because of Mars’s weak gravity, Carter finds himself capable of leaping across the landscape, and his denser bone and muscle mass make him an even more formidable fighter than the vicious Barsoomian natives.  John Carter first encounters the Tharks, a ruthless four armed warrior race.  The leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas, played energetically by Willem Defoe in CGI garb, sees in Carter a weapon he can turn against the other denizens of Barsoom, and instead of shooting him on sight decides to tie him up for later use. 

In addition to the Tharks, Barsoom houses the Red Martians who look pretty much like Earthlings who forgot to put on enough SPF during their Florida vacation.  The Red Martians control several city-states that are at war with one another.  The city of Helium has been under siege by the city of Zodanga and cannot hold out for much longer. The leader of Zodanga, Sab Than, has been able to keep his rivals on the ropes thanks to technology he received from a mysterious group of secretive people known as the Therns.  In a desperate last bid for peace, the ruler of Helium has agreed to marry off his daughter, the Princess Dejah Thoris, to Sab Than, but when she learns of her fathers plan, Dejah jets off.  The Zodanga airships catch up with her near the encampment of Tars Tarkas and his tribe where Carter rescues her from plunging to her death.  Dejah, of course, wishes to recruit Carter to her cause in defending Helium against the onslaught of Zodanga.

The plot itself is somewhat tortuous, thanks in part to the insertion of the mysterious Therns, who did not appear in the first book and whose inclusion adds just one more twisted convolution.  And while the politics could have easily been more of a chore, Stanton, like all Pixar directors, has such a fantastic sense of pacing that we never have to suffer through much political posturing.  The audience is given as much information as they need, and then we move on.  But not surprisingly the most engaging parts of the film take place among the Tharks.  The movie is smart enough not to blunt the violent aspect of Thark society—Thark children are hatched in communal incubators and those who do not break from their egg in time and summarily killed—while at the same time the filmmakers shave off some of the racism of Burroughs’s original story.  (In the novel, the Tharks stand in for the American-Indians Carter is fighting before being transported across space and time).  For a Disney movie John Carter is surprisingly violent, and Carter finds himself covered in Martian blood on more than one occasion. 
The joys of John Carter are ultimately slight, but this is also the movie’s strength.  While other blockbusters have become increasingly bloated, John Carter feels invigoratingly light-footed.  True, the movie’s running time exceeds two hours, but it never feels long.  Just as Carter himself is a man out of time and place, John Carter the movie also feels out of step with its fellow big budgeted adventure films.  At its heart, and when it is at its very best, John Carter feels like an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks flick—Captain Blood with more special effects.  Many people have questioned whether or not sci-fi fantasy film set on Mars at the end of the 19th century can recoup its substantial cost in 2012.  I’m the last person who should try and predict public tastes, but I can say that John Carter is that rare breed of sci-fi spectacle that, when it hits its stride, actually thrills. 

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