Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John Carter of Mars (2012)


Civil War veteran John Carter just wants to be left alone.  Well, to be left alone so he can find a legendary 'cave of gold'.  His plans are rudely interrupted, however, when he is mysteriously and unceremoniously transported to the planet Barsoom--or as you and I know it, 'Mars'.  Life on Barsoom is hard; the ruthless four-armed Tharks have no patience for weakness (even killing children who are deemed too weak to survive), and the power-hungry ruler of Zodanga is poised to overthrow the city of Helium . . . of which uber-hottie Dejah Thoris is (conveniently) the princess.  John Carter, acclimated to the heavier earth gravity and thus possessed of seeming super-powers in Mars' reduced gravity, is heavily recruited by Helium for its defense.  Will he be persuaded to take an interest in the events around him?  What of the godlike Therns worshiped on Mars--what is their role in the conflict between Zodanga and Helium?  And what can one man do about it?

This movie is about par for the course in the sci-fi/action blockbuster genre--which is to say: critics were unimpressed, and the audience by and large enjoyed it.  The original novel, while a 'classic', is far from a literary masterpiece--it was one of many pulp stories published by the truckload in the early 1900s.  The writers here clearly played fast and loose with the source material, tweaking the plot wherever they saw fit.  Some of these tweaks--like the superweapon known as 'the ninth ray'--unnecessarily complicated the plot and ultimately contributed to the confusion surrounding the film.

More troubling than the plot changes, however, were the character changes.
Dejah Thoris, a mere princess in the books, is elevated in this post-feminist day and age to the role of scientist (and she seems to be the only educated one in the bunch).  But it is the character of John Carter that undergoes the most violence in this adaptation.  In the book, John Carter is the quintessential red-blooded American Southern soldier.  He is eager to defend the weak, and pays appropriate deference to women and children.  He is also kind to animals--a completely foreign concept on the hard and merciless Mars.  Indeed, it is his kindness to animals that wins him the undying loyalty of the adorable Mars-dog (of sorts), Woola, and the cooperation of the otherwise unwieldy and aggressive thoats (the riding beasts of Mars).  His capacity for mercy sets him utterly apart from the honest but ruthless Tharks.

But John Carter is no softy.  He is a man who loves a good skirmish, and is all too eager to let his fists fly--it is the solution to almost any problem.  Thus, in the book, when he is confronted with injustice and a potential fight to be fought, all the Martians need do is point him in the right direction and let him go.  He will leap joyfully into the fray, full of the joy of battle.  Thus while the Tharks are astounded by John Carter's consideration of weakness, they cannot merely dismiss him as a weakling.  He is the best fighter Mars has ever seen, and so earns respect for himself and even his kinder ways.

Not so in the movie.  The film John Carter is a mopey sot, depressed about the death of his wife and child, and unwilling to get involved in Martian politics.  Especially fighting.  He's basically a colossal whiny bore until he finally figures out that he loves Dejah Thoris (a feat that took Book John Carter approximately three seconds) and is, in fact, willing to fight to save her.  Movie John Carter is positively riddled with angst--an attribute that would have utterly mystified the clear eyed, open-hearted Book John Carter.

But enough about the main character.  The acting here is largely excellent, with the possible exception of Taylor Kitsch (sorry, ladies).  Not too many big names make appearance, but a lot of very solid TV actors earn their keep.  Dominic West (The Wire) is believable as the violent-but-ultimately-naive ruler of Zodanga, and Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy (Rome), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), and even Don Stark (That 70s Show) pull their weight. Perpetual bad guy Mark Strong is downright creepy as the evil Thern.  The bigger name actors seem to stick to voice work--Willem Defoe, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton voice the four-armed Tharks quite admirably.  And Lynn Collins, while not as devastatingly beautiful as the Dejah Thoris of the book (think Helen of Troy--it's impossible to live up to, really) is sufficiently interesting to make John Carter's interest in her believable.

The effects are largely well done, though John Carter's exploration of the low Martian gravity had an artificial feel to it.  But then, we don't see a movie like this for the realism of it, do we?

Bottom line:  It doesn't quite live up to the books, but it's still a fun way to kill a few hours.

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