Friday, March 16, 2012

Love: John Carter (of Mars)

The last time Disney tried to make a sword and sandals adventure it was the god-awful miscast joke we call Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.  I bring up that scatter-plotted nightmare because I'm basically clinging to it as some sort of totemic proof that I haven't been completely brainwashed by the Disney corporation into loving any tent-pole money pit they tell me is the next big franchise.  See, I quite liked John Carter, not in the semi-ironic way one generally loves a clattering actioner with rigor mortis acting, but in the very genuine way I was able to suspend my disbelief for the fantasy films of my childhood.  John Carter is a 21st Century homage to B-movie spectacle; a whimsical, creature-filled romp set almost entirely on a Mars we haven't seen before, but which we have always known.  As Disney screwed itself over on the advertising front, perhaps I should explain: the original title for this film was John Carter of Mars, a key point that could have really worked to separate this lively bit of fun from, say, Wrath of the Titans.  As a character, he's no recent invention.  John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, who may have the perfect surname for this project) is a pure pulp hero, a Civil War-era Virginian sprung from the mind of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs who travels, without rhyme or reason, magically to Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants)...
 
While I've never read the Burroughs novels, I can only assume their trajectory is fairly close to what Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton has shot here.  John Carter is a monomyth, a wholly predictable journey straight out of a million works of genre fiction: there's a call to adventure, a staunch refusal of that obligation, a supernatural interference, a forcing of that character to recognize their obligation; a princess, a villain, important father figures, caves of gold, and so on.  Will our sassy space princess and our stubborn hero fall in love?  Will there be a large scale climactic battle?  Is John Carter ever going to want to go back to Earth again?  Bitch, please, you know the answers and you're not allowed to complain about them. Part of the beauty of genre fiction (in literature) arises out of the repetitive form.  It's a comfortable, nostalgic terrain. When we're immersed in it, we're able to revel in the permutations instead of the complications.  A fan of science fiction, fantasy, or any genre one could describe as 'pulp' knows that the logical details aren't important, but an embracing of absurdity is absolutely necessary to keeping the story (or, the world) afloat. George Lucas did that, and Andrew Stanton manages it here.
Stanton is the noted perfectionist behind Wall-E and Finding Nemo, arguably two of Pixar's strongest outings, and word on the street is that he shot and re-shot John Carter until Hollywood started talking Ishtar-level catastrophes.  While skeptical early press seems to have hindered the film's potential as a serious contender, it's clear upon viewing that Stanton certainly knows how to translate the imaginative components of those Pixar films to live action.  John Carter is a beautiful, dusty fantasy concoction of jagged canyons, infinite horizons, and echoing halls.  Within these environments, our characters are dwarfed pawns caught up in war games much bigger than themselves.  On Barsoom, our surly cavalryman discovers his genetic make-up gives him strange abilities in the planet's atmosphere, and a killer anti-gravity high jump means he just deserted one Civil War only to find himself as a key player in a high stakes battle for rebel princess Dejah's (Lynn Collins) people.  Cue the action, cue the one-liners, cue the completely adorable alien dog (his name is Woola and he puts Uggie to shame).
Straight off of Friday Night Light's, Taylor Kitsch wouldn't have been my first choice for a new action hero. Yet, while he's not the most emotive of individuals, he doesn't disappoint.  What Kitsch has going for him (and this is true of Collins as well) is the ability to take it all in stride.  They both get it, and they're both fresh enough that we don't have too many preconceived notions on how they should be playing their parts.  Neither of them are forcing anything they aren't capable of, and Stanton knows that an unconvincing emotional reflection can be covered up with a slick montage of memories just long enough to clue the audience in without injecting any real drama.  Ultimately, where John Carter may dismiss science, it embraces its pulpy roots.  This is film one watches for no other reason than to have fun and, as such, it's worth noting that there are quite a few purposely humorous moments far funnier than your average junk comedy.  It may not be a classic (though, who knows, time will tell...), but Andrew Stanton takes care to make sure we understand that this is a film designed as escapist adventure and nothing deeper.  Hopefully, they'll get a chance to make that sequel...





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