Wednesday, 7 March 2012

John Carter (of Mars, seriously): Review Plus interviews & clips from the film...

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I was lucky enough to see an IMAX 3D preview of this film last Thursday and then a standard 3D preview as well. (Unfortunately I’ve been too ill to get a review finished until now.) As always the IMAX 3D version is the one to go and see, if you can AND if you’re a big fan of the John Carter of Mars series / or just this kind of thing in general. It’s a tricky review to get a handle on really. On the one hand the film is quite enjoyable, the cast is good; I was especially impressed with Taylor Kitsch (X-Men Origins Wolverine; Friday Night Lights (TV)) as the titular hero. But the problem a lot of reviewers, and hardly any ‘regular’ moviegoers, will have is that at the back of the mind is the feeling that for a whopping $250m you’re always expecting just a little bit more somehow. That’s the shooting budget of Thor AND Rise of The Planet of The Apes with about $7m left over for snacks. There’s a LOT of money up on the screen, just perhaps not quite that much.
Trailer 3...

Based on a story that was first published in serial form 100 years ago, and then published as a novel under the superior title ‘A Princess of Mars’ in 1917; John Carter may look, to the casual observer, like a film that is borrowing from several famous sci-fi, fantasy and comic book sources; but it is in fact a story that has inspired any number of modern Science fiction tales from Superman to Avatar and Flash Gordon to Star Wars. That said it is, like most stories, itself inspired by older tales and myths; not least of which is Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (later retiled Gulliver Jones of Mars, for obvious reasons). Both feature American military men who get mysteriously transported to Mars, and subsequently meddle with a princess and various alien species. The two are even put together in the second tale of Alan Moore’s ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’; which is well worth a read.


Here’s the story...
“From Academy Award(R)-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes "John Carter"--a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). "John Carter" is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.”

The film makes a few changes from the source(s), but that is to be expected, especially with some of the language and attitudes with regards to Native Americans & women; and most of the changes do serve to make the story more cinematic and accessible. I’m not sure all fans will happy with the focus that is put onto John’s family here, but a hero whose only prior sense of worth appeared to be fighting on the wrong side (for many around the globe the bad, or even ‘evil’ side) in the American Civil War really wouldn’t work as well in 2012 as it may have in 1912: Also since when has it ever been possible to make all fans happy?  The method and design of John Carter’s trip to Mars are altered in a way that will make more ‘sense’ to a 21st century audience though. Not quite so well handled is the opening sequence. Here we are supposed to get a sense of who the antagonists are and the hows and whys of there being life, air and water on Mars in the 19th century. The sequence is, perhaps, a little too confusing, especially if your kids aren’t eagle eyed enough to spot the blue or red flags of the good & bad guys.
See the blue flags on that front ship? Very important they are...

Our world...

The film’s second beginning, wherein we meet John Carter on Earth, sets up an intriguing mystery and serves as a decent grounding for the audience, after the sci-fi exploits and voice over of the pre-credits sequence. I’m reminded of two similar devices from films that also had an interesting blend of Sci-fi, a little magic (or super science as magic), that also used a voice over and action sequence to introduce audiences to the more fantastical side of the respective films: Thor & Green Lantern. Whilst Anthony Hopkins’ voice over and the glimpses of the war between the Frost giants, humans and Asgardian ‘gods’ proved to be informative, effective and thrilling; Green Lantern’s similar voice over led travel through the back-story of the film was less effective and the success of the two films seemed to follow on from there. Thor was well received and fair sized hit; Green Lantern, not very well received and, relative to cost, a box office failure. John Carter’s back-story intro is better than Green Lantern’s and suitably spectacular; but it isn’t as clear cut as it needs to be and doesn’t effectively communicate as much as it seems to think it should; and certainly not in as interesting a way as hoped.
Kitsch interview...

The following, Earthbound, sequence (see 10 minute clip below) is excellent though and gives the audience a reason to care who the hell John Carter is and what happens to him. Taylor Kitsch does an excellent job with this role and does seem to have the requisite screen presence to carry the film. Still best known to most people as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (despite his role in the TV series Friday Night Lights) Kitsch has a big year ahead of him; he headlines both John Carter and the wild card of the summer, Battleship. His performance here should stand him in good stead, as he surely can’t take any blame of the film fails to make the stupendous amount of money needed to cover its $350 'total' budget.
10 minute clip...

"No good'll come out of me fightin' your war."
Born in Virginia, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) served as an officer in the Confederate army in the Civil War. He is an honourable and courageous hero, but the ravages of the Civil War have left him broken, dispirited and personally defeated. Accidentally transported to Barsoom (Mars), John Carter begins to realize that his strength and jumping abilities are greatly amplified in the low gravity of the planet. Carter reluctantly begins a journey to rediscover his humanity while at the same time saving his newfound world.”

Of the big 3 ‘CGI toon to live action movie’ directors, Andrew Stanton’s debut rates in the middle. Neither as unimaginative as Andrew Adamson’s (Shrek, Shrek 2) first live action film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe; nor as exciting and well paced as Brad Bird’s (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, ) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Perhaps that was to be expected though. Bird’s pedigree ‘even’ in animation showed a flair for action sequences and precisely the kind of visual flair displayed, and required, for Mission: Impossible; Andrew Adamson quickly stepped up his game for his second live action feature, but (however successful that first Narnia film was) he definitely struggled in key areas with his first. Stanton’s previous experience with Finding Nemo and Wall*E shows a aesthetic flair, often repeated here, but perhaps not the requisite eye for action and pacing that may explain why a little too much of, the generally impressive, action scenes here, feel a little too repetitive and somewhat confused. A little more should have been done with his jumping gifts and increased agility; although Woola was superbly well realised.

"If you had the means to save others, would you not take any action possible to make it so?"
Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins); the beautiful, raven-haired princess of Helium, is a passionate advocate for the Heliumites and their way of life. Dejah is Regent of the Royal Academy of Science, and was trained to rule and fight. She is on the verge of a discovery that could permanently shift the balance of power between her nation Helium and their enemy Zodanga. But time is running out, and Dejah must convince John Carter to enlist in the fight to save Helium.”

Having co-starred with Kitsch in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Lynn Collins gets rather more screen time with him as she take what should have been the title role as Deja, the ‘Princess of Mars’. (Apparently the title A Princess of Mars would have put off too many men...Yes, yes I know!) To get the obvious out of the way first, she manages to both look good wearing not very much (after 4.5 hours of tan and tattoo make up every morning) AND be convincing twirling a sword and kicking arse. (Something too few of today’s emaciated crop of actresses can manage). She throws herself whole heartedly into the role, saddled with a ‘regal’ English accent, surrounded by several actually British actors. A little more time to see more of her scientific background would have been nice though. She’s never given quite as much to do as one of her many sci-fi children, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri from Avatar.

"We do not cause the destruction of a world, Captain Carter. We simply manage it. Feed off it, if you like."
Matai Shang (Mark Strong) is the Holy Hekkador (King) of the Therns. Using their advanced technology, the mysterious Therns represent themselves as the messengers of Issus, the Barsoomian Goddess, in order to further their own plans.”

"When I saw you leap into the sky, I wished to believe it was a sign that something new can come into this world."
Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) is a fierce green Martian warrior who is the Jeddak (King) of the Tharks. The last vestige of nobility runs in his blood and is the only thing that keeps the Thark tribe from turning into beasts. Blessed with a good sense of humor and patience, Tars Tarkas befriends the earthman John Carter and gives him the Thark name Dotar Sojat, which roughly translates as "my right arms."”

Mark Strong is always watchable, even as a Scooby Doo villain in Sherlock Holmes, and whilst his character of Matai Shang is both mildly confusing and underused here, he plays this part well and credit to him for having to spend the film wrapped in the Martian equivalent of a slanket! I’ve also go to be very impressed with Willem Dafoe for managing to act at all in stilts. His Tars Tarkas, another character altered slightly from the first book, is often engaging and Dafoe’s voice helps bring him to life.

Now I realise that by listing what was wrong with the film I may have given you the impression that I didn’t enjoy it. I did and I certainly enjoyed it enough that I’d hope to see many, if not all, of the subsequent stories turned into films. There were 11 novels and many comic book stories published, so there is certainly plenty of to work with. With the effects groundwork laid for the Tharks and Warhoon etc, there’s every reason to believe that you could make more of these films for significantly less money, without compromising on spectacle. There’s also the fact that you wouldn’t need to spend nearly as much money promoting any further films. (for example Iron Man was a ‘virtual unknown  when the first film came out so Marvel Studios spent about $90m releasing that film; but for Iron Man 2 that cost was reduced to around $60m: Meaning that despite the actual film costing $50 more to make the theatrical profits from both films were more or less the same.) With Disney spending an estimated $100m to promote John Carter, you have to think that any sequels would be able to reduce that significantly. Of course with such an expensive film it is a long way from certain that we’ll see any more of these films. How much would Disney consider enough to make it worth going ahead with more of these films? Tron Legacy probably didn’t actually take in enough money to cover its total budget, but that hasn’t stopped Disney from moving ahead with another one of those. That will be because in the long run, DVD sales / rentals etc. The film will certainly have made a profit and there was enough interest suggests a better film would do bigger business. So it isn’t simply a case of John Carter taking in the massive numbers it would need to make a profit, or even break even, at the cinema that counts. I still question the wisdom of releasing such an expensive film in March too. If you do like this, and you want to see more, I’d go see it again and make sure you get other people along for the ride.

As for the film’s rating, well I don’t know what to say here at all. Here in the UK it received a 12A for the following reasons...

“The BBFC's Guidelines at 'PG' state 'Moderate violence, without detail, may be allowed, if justified by its context (for example, history, comedy or fantasy)'. Although the violence in JOHN CARTER is moderate in nature and occurs within a clear fantasy context, there are some detailed moments of violence that are more appropriately classified at '12A'. For example, in one scene a man is stabbed in the wrist in close up, causing blue coloured blood to spurt from the wound.

JOHN CARTER also contains some scenes of moderate threat and infrequent very mild language.”

In the US it has been rated PG-13 for...
“Intense sequences of violence and action.”

Now in either case I have to say I think it is just about the feeblest 12A I have ever seen in my life. I can think of numerous PG rated films that were far worse (Raider of The Lost Ark ad Jurassic Park to name but 2) and I can honestly say that you shouldn’t have any fears about taking your kids (certainly over 6) to see the film. Of course, as always, the preferred option is that you see a film yourself and THEN take your kids if you think it is suitable, but really, neither their morals, nor their night’s sleep should be in danger here.

Movie-going / popcorn experience       - 7/10
Critical, film school view            - 6/10
Overall score                             - 6.5/10

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Don't forget you'll get to see the 3D trailer for The Avengers before this film too; it has a Hulk you know?

The Avengers: The new trailer is here. "You have made me very desperate." see this movie!...

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