Thursday, June 7, 2012

"John Carter": Better the Second Time Around

Two days ago, Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic influential Barsoom novels, John Carter, came to home media. I knew I was going to buy it, though it wasn't one I was particularly excited about buying because I wasn't too crazy about the film itself when I saw it in theaters. Before it came out, I was very much looking forward to seeing it, knowing that it was from Pixar director Andrew Stanton and it was based on books that inspired the likes of Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Avatar. Stanton also tried out of the science fiction genre at Pixar with his breathtaking epic WALL-E. I had a feeling this would be as brilliant as a Pixar film, even if it wasn't.

When I saw it on opening weekend, I was somewhat disappointed. I didn't like the way the story was told, but I did admire the visuals, the action scenes and a few other things. I felt that it was a giant mess, though I still liked it. I liked it enough to say, "I'm getting the Blu-ray of this when it comes out." Now that I've seen it again, I must say, I enjoyed it a lot more. Still, I feel that it is a somewhat problematic film.

John Carter's biggest strengths are the cinematography, the visuals and the tone of the whole film. Stanton's direction is very passionate, to retro science fiction adventures, pulp stories and the books themselves. It's a lovely film to look at too, the designs of the cities are great and all the different creatures are unique. The ships and the machines in the film are also creative and unique, and if you know that the books were around since 1912, then you can see where other science fiction and fantasy stories of the twentieth and twenty-first century borrowed from. The creature designs are good, but not the best, though the puppy dog-like Woola and the giant white apes are standouts. The Warhoons are effectively creepy and intimidating.

The story is good, but it has its faults. The first forty minutes of the film are strong. We are introduced to John Carter himself and his search for gold after the American Civil War. His search for gold in Arizona keeps the opening going at a steady pace, and when he gets on Mars (or Barsoom), we are treated to some fun scenes where he gets used to planet's gravity while also meeting the Tharks, the green four-armed aliens of Mars. He befriends Tars Tarkas, the Jeddak (ruler) of the Tharks along with his daughter, Sola. We meet a host of interesting characters in the first act. Aside from Carter, Tars Tarkas and Sola, we also meet Tal Hajus. A Thark with a missing tusk (you can tell he's the baddie), Hajus doesn't get along with Tarkas.

Then we are shown why Mars/Barsoom is a dying planet. A civil war between the two cities, Helium and Zodanga, are eating up the planet. Sab Than, the Jeddak of Zodanga, will end the war if he marries the princess of Helium, the beautiful Dejah Thoris. Sab Than is very powerful, as he was given a deadly weapon by the Therns, ominous shapeshifting men, on of which being the film's main antagonist, Matai Shang.

From there, the story starts going in different directions. It gets very inconsistent, and at times, convoluted. Others had the same problem. Everything that happens from here up until the film's third act is told in a messy manner, though some brilliance shines through. There is a Pixar-quality story under all this mess, and I wonder, had it been a Pixar film, would it have been stronger and less convoluted? Others might dismiss the story and say the film is just silly popcorn fare. I see a strong story under it, and several scenes during the film's second act are proof. During the dramatic scene where Carter fights the men of Warhoon, we cut back to Carter during the Civil War, burying his wife and daughter. It's an effective scene, and you can tell that the crew were trying to make this a serious story.

Moments like that are the film's stronger points. They just happen to mixed into the story that tends to jump back and forth, and the rather unspectacular screenplay does not help. You've got several different names for the creatures, the locations and everything else on Barsoom, but the acting makes it hard to understand the first time. I'm all for fantasy stories with such interesting names in them, but on first viewing, I couldn't follow it. However, viewing it again, it is a bit easier to follow. Some may disagree, but I felt that the way they handled it wasn't all that good. Also, there are a lot of characters in the film and multiple conflicts: Carter wants the medallion that can take back to Earth, Dejah Thoris doesn't want to marry Sab Than, she also wants to discover something that ultimately keep Barsoom alive, the war between the two cities continues and Tal Hajus plans to overthrow Tars Tarkas.

It almost feels like two films were made, but had to be crammed into a roughly two hour running time. Story issues aside, the characters are all well-written. They keep the film afloat, despite the plodding middle portion. The film's third act ties loose ends, with some fantastic action scenes (the white apes, the final battle) and a wonderful ending. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Carter's nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story is told through a flashback as Burroughs reads his uncle's private journal. At the end of the film, his role is much more significant.

In total, it's really the film's first forty minutes and the end of the film that are brilliant. Everything pays off quite wonderfully, and it definitely leaves everything open for a sequel. With that, you want to see more. You most likely won't, though. A terrible marketing campaign caused this film to be a huge box office flop for Disney. The terrible title change from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter certainly shackled the film before the first trailer was released. Bland trailers, bland TV spots, an awful Super Bowl spot and no merchandise made matters worse, and without informing audiences early on that the film was based on books that inspired Star Wars and Avatar, people perceived it as a clone.

I was able to enjoy the film because I knew that it wasn't a knock-off, it wasn't a clone. Did most audiences know that? Probably not. On first viewing, it didn't really knock me out. Seeing it again on Blu-ray is a must if you've seen it once, chances are you may enjoy it more than you did on your first viewing. I sure did, and I was immersed in the story this time around. I liked the characters a lot more, and found myself rooting for them when the third act rolled in. With that, it was a lot more thrilling.

Still, the film has its faults. I still can't praise much of the second act aside from action and the short moments of brilliance. It's the only thing that keeps the film from being something on the level of a Pixar film. It's obvious that a lot of passion went into this, as I had wrote it off as a popcorn flick in my first review. Now, I see it as a somewhat successful experiment. John Carter works well as a solid action adventure epic, but it aims high and at times misses. Beautiful to look at, with decent writing, a solid score by Michael Giacchino (not one of the man's best works, though) and a good story, John Carter is not the failure some might lead you to believe. In fact, it's a bright spot in a world of mindless summer blockbusters, mediocre comedies, contrived drama films and other films that catch on.


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