Sunday, March 3, 2013

John Carter

2012, 132 minutes, PG-13 – some violence, maybe a little language.
IMDB says... Transplanted to Mars, a Civil War vet discovers a lush planet inhabited by 12-foot tall barbarians. Finding himself a prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter a princess who is in desperate need of a savior.

The 73rd Virgin says...Considering the scope of the box office disaster, the weirdly unattractive ad campaign with an unknown actor looking like Tarzan, and the disorienting title, I’m shocked at how much I enjoyed this.

The opening is a confusing mess. A voice over tells us that the Martian cities of what sounds like Zodanga and Helium are at war. Two very similar airborne ships that paddle in the air engage with apparently human soldiers boarding each other’s vessels and doing battle in a classical Roman style. One flies blue colors and the other red. The city of Zodanga’s leader gets what looks like a glowing blue tumbleweed from the ubiquitous Mark Strong as a member of the shape-shifting, nearly immortal Thern species. The blue tumbleweed shoots a destructive beam that destroys everything in its path. Sort of an air-cooled field-deployable neutron bomb you can wear on your wrist.

But then we’re with wealthy adventurer/archeologist John Carter in New York City in 1881 sending a telegram to his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs but calling him Ned and then we’re flashing back even further to the post-Civil War Arizona Territory and John Carter is a prospector and then he’s pressed into service by the ubiquitous Brian Cranston of the 7th Cavalry to fight Apaches and then he goes into a cave and then he wakes up on Mars.

On Mars he finds he can jump really high but is captured by the Tharks who are tall, green, six-legged, egg-laying, rhino riding humanoids with tusks, but who are otherwise a less clichéd and tiresome version of Avatar’s Na’vi. They will be the Apaches of the Martian frontier if you like. It appears they deliberately toss all their eggs into a hole in the ground so no one will know who is whose parent when they hatch. When they determine that some of the eggs are slow to hatch they blast their own children with rifles so the “white apes” won’t eat them. Pretty bad-ass Na’vi.

So the humans in blue city Helium are losing the war and so the ubiquitous Ciaran Hinds decides to wed his daughter the princess to Zodanga’s ruler as a peace offering. When the two sides fight another air, ship, sword and sandal battle, the green Tharks show up with John Carter as their captive and he springs, literally, into action and rescues the princess. And this is all in the first 20 minutes or so. Oh, and Mars is called “Barsoom”, just so your kids won’t be confused or anything.

Director Andrew Stanton has his fingerprints all over the Pixar animated movies and considering that he directed both the semi-great “Finding Nemo” and the epically great “Wall-E”, he obviously knows how to tell complex and hilarious stories, but this needed a clear-eyed editor.

Still, it’s really not as bad as it sounds. The special effects are good and slightly old-school in that they don’t rely on quite so many jump cuts and other energetic editing devices. There is something somewhat stately about them and that’s a good thing.

The sound mix is not a good thing. Taylor Kitsch as Carter is handsome and muscular enough, although not outlandishly so in either feature, but his voice is perfectly pitched to disappear into the general rumble of battle and he sort of talks out of the back of his throat anyway. I have a modest 5.1 sound system and the voices were coming out of the center speaker like they should, but I was straining to pick up dialogue.

Combine that with the grumbling voice actors behind the Tharks, and add to that a whole lot of people with names or ceremonial titles that sound like variations on “goathair trouthat” or something, and you have a recipe for bewilderment among adult viewers and I can only guess about 12-year-olds. Any script that relies on a barrage of alien proper names early in the show is headed for trouble.

Just ask David Lynch about “Dune” – “she is a Bene Gesserit witch!!”, “she holds the Gom Jabbar!”, “for he is the Kwizatz Haderach!” etc. Oh lord, don’t get me started.

And at one point one of the Thern even declares out of nowhere, “the balance must be restored”, which would be a funny slap at George Lucas, but the script is apparently serious.

Anyway, once all this mess sorts out and the plot settles into a nice space/horse opera, there is enough story, special effects and odd humor to keep us watching. Texan Lynn Collins as the Princess of the blue city, Helium, has “Hollywood British” down pat and, as my daughter observed, “She has a lot of halter tops”, but at least the script gives her plenty to do. Here she misinterprets “shaking hands”.

There is a decent backstory concerning Carter’s lost family that briefly conjures up “The Outlaw Josie Wales” and presumably explains why he’s such a hard case. It’s not too intrusive.

Carter also picks up a sidekick – a sort of cross between a dog, and a supersonic trilobite dinosaur, named Wulla. It should evince an eye-roll but actually turns out to be pretty funny. In a later sight gag, as Carter is learning to fly one of the impossibly complicated Martian air ships, we see at a distance that the dogasaur is riding in front with his tongue hanging out. This is what Lucas should have thought about when he was thinking about Jar Jar Binks.

We finally learn the motives of the immortal Thern, the reason Carter becomes an obsessed archeologist back on Earth, why he is desperately telegraphing Edgar/Ned, etc. Not that we should care much, but the movie has at least a nice internal logical consistency and a plot that is eventually followable with lots of action and humor.

It’s all set up for a sequel that I would happily rent on DVD, but I doubt will ever happen. Director Stanton is off rescuing his reputation with “Finding Nemo II”, and Disney does not like losing $170 million – twice.

Still, way better than the obvious comparison, Cowboys & Aliens, and way, way better than half of the Star Wars franchise.

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