Monday, December 30, 2013

Of Mars and men


Forgive me.  I didn't know.

Directed by Andew Stanton
Written by Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, and Andrew Stanton (based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
With Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), Samantha Morton (Sola), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Dominic West (Sab Than), Bryan Cranston (Col. Powell), and Daryl Sabara (Ned)

Spoiler alert: high

In the March of 2012, two movies based on beloved literary properties arrived in theaters; one was good and one was bad.  In fact, one was great and one was terrible.  In fact, one was excellent and one, with only a few films in competition, is the worst movie I have ever and hope I ever shall see.  Eventually, I'll be reviewing it along with its sequel, because it grossed almost a billion bucks and I'm pretty sure that by this point dumb old Catching Fire has too.

The other movie netted so many negative dollars for its production company they were only countable in the hundreds of millions.  Many factors must have played a partWestern civilization collapsed in 2008, after all, and of course God left us to our own pathetic devices very long agobut whatever the historical forces that led to the moment, John Carter failed.  Not only did it fail commercially upon almost the instant of its release, but it became the subject of critical mockery and, maybe worse, critical indifference.  Over the next few weeks, its creator's dream of a franchise died alone and, almost, unmourned.

Almost: little by little, John Carter has accrued a cult following, something the makers of movies that cost $250 million don't pray for, and one supposes that this is exceedingly cold comfort to Andrew Stanton, Taylor Kitsch, Disney, and all the other principals involved.

The damage to their careers has already been done, and in every case it has been severe.  It ranges from deportation (Stanton was banished back to his homeland of Pixar) to deformation (anyone looking forward to Kitsch as a secondary character in that nondescript Mark Wahlberg movie about some sort of armed fighting men in Afghanistan that I think is maybe supposed to come out this year?) to devastation (Rich Ross, executive producer, got fired; even though it's true that like all rich scum caught in the web of his own failure he was able to find new work, even the hardest heart of the 99% can muster some pity for the man who went from overseeing major feature films to an executive position at a reality TV mill).

So I bought a stinking blu-ray.  So what?  I'm sure Disney will be issuing the announcement for The Gods of Mars any day now.

I have to admit that I didn't do right by any of them at the time.  I only watched about a dozen movies in theaters in 2012, and, to my shame, none of them was John Carter (to my even greater shame, one of them was Total Recall).  For this omission, to Andrew Stanton, et al, I offer my sincerest apologies

 (On the other hand, Stanton owed me for shelling out money for his extremely imperfect union of technical wizardry, high-test filmmaking, timely ecological and nutritional agitprop, annoyingly-sexed utilitarian robots, boilerplate girl-with-a-gun faux feminism, love for authoritarian governance, and what I think we can legitimately describe as semi-serious plagiarism.)

"You're trying to rehabilitate a movie people didn't like!  Is now really the time to indulge in your ridiculous, pathological disdain of the movie that everybody already loves?  Besides, since you lost your faith in democracy over the past year, shouldn't you like WALL-E now?"
"Leave me alone, failed actor!"

And yet, regardless of whether latecoming defenses of John Carter help in any real, material way, perhaps all involved can still take pride in the knowledge that their work has not gone altogether unnoticed, and that the reclamation of their legacy remains a possibility in their lifetimes.  The greatest achievement of the age of home video is that no movie any longer vanishes from this Earth.  Like Speed Racer before it, I believe that John Carter is finally being found by its audience, and in time its reputation will be fully mended, nurtured by the respect and the love it was always due.  And, after all, this is the Era of the Long Tail, where all but the most profound disappointments (-cough- The Lone Ranger -cough-) eventually recoup their costs.  Who knows what the future may bring for further cinematic adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs' work?

No one can predict the future.  Whether that Carson Napier of Venus feature ever gets made or not, I am confident that John Carter will, a hundred years from now, be remembered as much for Stanton's film as he is for Burroughs' novels.  Which is to say, barely by most, but fondly by those who remember him well, although we can be sure that even in 2113 he'll still be better known as John Carter OF FUCKING MARS.

It's a testament to the competence of the writing team behind John Carter that it takes what is probably the film's biggest weakness and turns it into an effective character denouement.  This weakness, of course, is the bizarre hesitation at appending those key words "of Mars" to the pulp hero's namea decision apparently driven by the idea that people would rather see a movie whose title makes the ordinary person say "Who?" in an accusatory voice rather than "Oh, right" with a sense of enthusiasm, because it triggers the racial memory of a time when people enjoyed things that were cool.

"Why even bother, bro?  They recast Stallone."

One version of the story about the name is that this was Stanton's own choice, based on his vision of the materiallikewise was it his decision to market John Carter obliquely, including its (supposedly) anemic trailer.  I like the trailer, now that I actually look at it.  However, I've seen the movie four times, so gap-filling is inevitable and it's impossible to know now whether I too would have been forced to ask aloud "what the fuck is this shit?" had I witnessed it without the benefit of multiple viewings of the actual film.

The other explanation for the missing planet in John Carter's title is that Disney was concerned about the marketability of Mars.  As idiotic as this soundswhy, it's a household nameit is based on some a lot of data points.

Red PlanetGhosts of MarsMars AttacksMars Needs MomsVeronica Mars.  James Marsden.  All derided, marginalized, and ignored.  Believe it or not, there are even those who do not recognize "Life On Mars?" as Bowie's best song.  The trend peaks at its most disgusting in 2000 when a majority of viewers and critics alike turned on the Brian De Palma true classic Mission To Mars for no obvious reason whatsoever, since most people aren't nearly as annoyed by stealth creationism as I am and every single other part of that movie is totally fucking great.1

Thus undeterred by questions of intrinsic quality and focusing on what they could understand, the Disney suitsso the other version of this story goesundertook to minimize the science fantasy bombast of John Carter in its marketing, including taking Mars out of the title; which is an odd way to go about it, since all it was bound to do is force hundreds of thousands of words to be spilled out questioning and criticizing the decision to attempt to debrand the iconic property.

Well, it all worked out just fine in the end, didn't it, you big dummies?

And, it bears noting, the refusal to use the other half of Burroughs' title is arguably ironic coming from the Magic Kingdom; although Disney seems to have wished to keep the occasionally dark, ubiquitously-violent tentpole movie as segregated as possible from their animated lines, which is why the name of director Andrew Stanton, Pixar King, was not heavily deployed as the weapon it is, even though he is the man responsible for the well-received and delightfully-Dave Foley-centric A Bug's Life, as well as a pair of crazy successes, first Finding Nemo and then that aforementioned movie about robots wanting to fuck.

But if audiences don't care for Mars, and may not have had much use for live action princesses either, neither does our hero himself, whose fearlessness is a result of self-loathing indifference, a state he exists in throughout much of the film.  Thus, elliptically, I reach my point: John Carter is truly the story of how John Carter of Earth first became, through great hardship and self-discovery, John Carter of Mars.  It is John Carter Begins, and as far as superheroic origin stories go, it surpasses all that came before and, Man of Steel certainly not withstanding any comparison to this film, John Carter has not before or since really been close to equaled in this regard.  Unless Batman '89 counts, which I don't think it does.

John Carter opens via an ingenious framing deviceactually, that's not strictly true, it opens via Dune.

Almost more Dune than your poor heart could stand, until this scene was repositioned.

What we get instead, for now, is a medium-length Willem Dafoe monologue about Mars, replacing any text crawl which could have made somewhat less dreadfully unfair the historically ignorant comparisons to Star Wars that abounded at the time of the film's release (usually with some sort of fig leaf about how the author totally knows about Burroughs' vintage before going ahead and saying John Carter seemed derivative anyway).

Anyway, the narration is actually pretty great, as you'd expect from Dafoe; however, its inclusion involves some temporal gymnastics that, unfortunately, disorient rather than edify.

To wit, we skip ahead, or back, or sideways, or something, to the present day (or, the 1890s).  John is being followed by a mysterious stranger; he sends a mysterious telegram to his nephew; and he mysteriously diesprobably as a result of tuberculosis, German artillery, or sinister Martian plot, the leading causes of mortality in the late 19th century according to my research on the period, largely Charles Dickens books which I was forced to read, histories of the Franco-Prussian War which I wanted to read, and film adaptations of H.G. Wells novels which I could not be bothered to read on account of my 21st century penchant for laziness.

The focus quickly shifts over to his nephew, one Ned (get it? get it? well, it's not like this is the twistthat would be patheticit's made very clear that it is Nedgar Rice Burroughs himself).  John has willed his sizable estate to Ned, including a vast hoard of crazy person bric-a-brac, as well as John's frankly Seven-esque private journal, of which his attorney knows not the contents, but which Ned must, according to terms of the bequest, read at once.

The journal is our window into the film proper; and so does the story of John Carter start in earnest.  We are rocketed thousands of miles away to a world of wonderment, dubious water supply, and heavily armed warriors:

Welcome to the Real America.

There John is trying to get rich, seems to be by and large failing, and winds up pursued by authority figures from the government.

Admittedly, an obtuse framing device followed up by our titular science hero moping and sullenly punching his way through an extended Western sequence centered around a gold mine is an odd wayand even potentially an off-putting wayto start off an action blockbuster.  This is especially the case given that a real tone issue could be attributed to the film, if one were so inclined (and I am not); John Carter moves through scenes suited for a paranoid thriller, a slapstick comedy, a deconstructionist Western, and finally a depressing sub-Merchant Ivory drama before finally getting to the science fantasy.  But, for what it's worth, people didn't seem to mind this kind of thing so much in 1977.

Maybe it's the "deconstructionist" part that was the bridge too far.  Die paleface!

This part really isn't that long: it's only twenty minutes.  Still, it's demanding in a way that many movies are not, especially ones where at best most of the audience only has a very vague idea of what to expect.  But, despite any misgivings, for the patient and the observant, not a moment in John Carter's back-to-back prologues fails to pay off in some fashion.  Note carefully for the two wedding rings on John's hand; consider what John's ultimate plan for his journal might be; finally, watch for the delightful smash cuts to the aftermath of each new injury or indignity John suffers every time he tries to get one over on his fellow human, as portrayed by that most excellent human Bryan Cranston, because they're really funny.

John is essentially powerless on his native Krypton.

Indeed, editing is John Carter's greatest strength, but let's discuss its total conquest a little later.

Through a series of coincidences, John does manage to fashion an ingenious escape plan that I, personally, had never seen before, and once he gets out, finds his way to a cave used as a waystation between worlds, and through a bit of homicide comes into the possession of a talisman, which when activated transports him to...

...Space America?

Which leads into one of the two actual criticisms I have for John Carter.  It is an omission of grave importance that the more-or-less natural color of Western locations they usedoften in lieu of or only faintly supplemented by CGI, giving it an impressively real if affrontively familiar lookwas permitted to persist without radical color correction.  I don't want Mars to look accurate; while there is an ongoing discussion what it would exactly look like to the human eye, the evidence suggests that Mars is mostly just a boring brown, and fails to live up to its iconic blood red fantasythat color being an artifact of looking from Earth at the refraction of dust particles in the planet's atmosphere, which in fact lend a dimly butterscotch cast to the Martian firmament as seen from its actual surface.  Often enough the sky is blue, even, on account of Rayleigh scatteringwhich is almost obvious, insofar as light and atoms work exactly the same everywhere, if you stick to scientific fidelity.

Like some kind of nerd, right?

But this isn't Mars, this is, as we'll learn, Barsoom, and ridiculous amounts of ferric oxide dust should be all over the place, most especially in the air, where it can do its (fictional) magic and generate the ominous red skies which herald, if not the Anti-Monitor, a radical extraterra.  In terms of atmosphere, even the color of a delicious Werther's original would be an improvement.  The skies are blazing azure on Stanton's Barsoom; and the dominant shade in the palette of John Carter, unfortunately, is furious yellow.

It's also yellow in Princess of Mars, but, you know, Burroughs wasn't writing a movie.  And he imagined Mars as teeming with this mossy flora, as seen here, and never, ever again.

If there's one thing you don't need in a science fantasy film, it's subtlety in either the cinematography or the art department.  In so many ways John Carter is the truest spiritual successor to Flash Gordon since that film's 1980 release.  John Carter retains that same kind of purity as a standalone property (sadly, in more ways than one).  But it was Thor that really inherited the craziness of Flash's pseudo-scientific alien worlds.  Kenneth Branagh and Bo Welch did what you absolutely must do to approach that kind of visual splendor: be bold in your color.  If you want to be Flash Gordonand, I think it's clear Stanton did, whether Disney would have rathered it been something lousy, like Pirates of the Caribbean, insteadthere is no excuse in the world to not go the full Donati.

I just want it to look like Dario Argento threw up.  Is that so ridiculous?  It's not like that's what Deimos and Phobos really look like!

If the landscapes of Barsoom are far too tastefully appointed, its inhabitants don't exactly shock the conscience either.  Although absolutely nothing in the film's conception is so subdued as to bore (and, to be clear, Utah is still lovely), the Green Martians are unfortunately an olive drab, the White Martians look pretty good but not quite pallid enough, and the (allegedly) Red Martians are not just almost entirely human in phenotype but emphatically Caucasian.  It took me a little while to realize their hues were not their actual skin tones rather than spray-on dye (maybe this is normal and I don't know it, but this movie credits a host of tan spray technicians).  Indeed, given that I had no knowledge of the Burroughs terminology on my first viewing, I assumed the Green Martians were just employing a nasty slur for the marginally melanized peoples of Helium and Zodanga when they met John.

Damn, that's racist.

Red, at least as requested, shows up for less than two minutes of screentime.  On the occasions when we have CGI shots of Mars from space, the planet is fittingly crimsonthough, bizarrely, our first look at Mars in the opening narration involves a zoom toward the Red Planet, through the Martian clouds, to the surface, so that in a single shot Mars metamorphoses into what is clearly the United States.  Red also appears in the modified Disney logo, a palette swapped piece of offensive laze that can't even be bothered to put a pair of moons in the sky, let alone depict a Barsoomian landscapecontrast, if you will, the thrillingly reinvented logo used for Tron: Legacy:

And yet, I've got to tell you, the heart was in the right place.

Ultimately, I suppose it simply boils down to a failure to be garish enough to suit my tastes, which are idiosyncratic, I can freely admit.  Otherwise, from production design (Nathan Crowley) to costuming (in particular) (Mayes Rubeo), Stanton and company paint a very pretty picture.

Any film with a mobile metropolis, explicitly labeled "the predator city of Zodanga," which serves as a roving aerodrome for solar-powered flying galleys, is already alright with me.  At its first breathtaking sightincidentally, in the long-zoom CGI shot I just blastedI consciously and permanently disregarded any reservations about John Carter which remained, color included.


And anyway, one can't really say that the Great American Desolation isn't bracingly beautiful in its own right, even if it feels too familiar even for someone on the East Coast.

The other big criticism I have of John Carter is this fucking thing:

It's basically Lockjaw from the Inhumans, but Lockjaw from the Inhumans teleported, whereas Woola runs.  He runs fast.  Not so fast you can't see him.  More like a medium-high, ridiculous-looking fast.

A mistreated pet of one of the Green Martians, he becomes John's faithful companion when the Earthman gives him what he's never knownaffection.  He's in the book; he's no Disney sidekick invented out of a really hideous piece of whole cloth.  And in the book, just like in the movie, he is fast.  But it all makes me wonder if a Flash movie (for the Justice Leaguer, not Gordon) is really all that good an idea, because in the wrong hands it will just be unwatchable (so give it to Zack Snyder).  It's odd, because John Carter's superpowers (to which we'll get) work in a way that Woola's superspeed just doesn't, or at least doesn't quite yet.

Because you see, with each rewatch, I find myself less and less annoyed by his impossible fleetness of foot, finding the slightly-better-than-Twilight speed effects with which he was rendered more charmingly than offensively goofy.  And even in the film's emotionally pivotal second act climax, where this loyal canine character belongs so much more than his bizarre representation fits the tone, Woola's appearance becomes less of a burden and more of a boon every time.

And, of course, if not for Woola, this shot could not exist.

Have I convinced you to watch John Carter yet?  What the fuck do you mean, "no"?

But if John Carter falters, to a slight degree, as film as ornamentation, how does it fare as film as story?  Unbelievably well, given the constraints of a dense, lovingly-adapted fantasy world, filled with what amounts to a code that requires strict attention in order to decipher at all what's going on.  Several exposition scenes are real jargongasms for the actorsthat they never approach being unconvincing while delivering reams of technical data about "the ninth ray" and "Issus" and "Dotar Sojat"2 is a monument to their professionalism and skill, not to mention their sheer enjoyability as screen presences, from Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins in their people-bodies to Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton clothed in CGI as a pair of Green Martians, or Tharks, who (thanks to their inner actors) are always immediately recognizable.

I know it's not really cool to say, but all Tharks look alike to me.

John's arrival on Mars is one of the cooler scenes in the movie, featuring his awkward but glorious transition to the lessened gravity regime.  It's a sequence that makes you realize how cool even an Action Comics #1 Superman must have been, and still would be, because while "jumping really far and high" may not sound like a great power, it turns out that, especially coupled with super-strength and John Carter's period-accurate disregard for sapient life, it is a fucking awesome power.

Makes you wonder what a $250 million Super Mario Bros. remake might look like, too, eh?  Eh?

He's found by the Tharks and he becomes integrated somewhat into their culture, and is eventually given the Voice of Barsoom, a magic liquid (not present in the novel) that translates Martian speech for himbut not soon enough for Tars Tarkus, leader of the Tharks, to not have irrevocably misunderstood his name, given as "Captain John Carter, of Virginia," as plain "Virginia," a joke that shouldn't be funny at all but, somehow, really is.

In unrelated news, no, they haven't found my tumor yet.

I'll point out at this juncture something about the Tharks, that I bet has never been mentioned by anyone else: the women don't have breasts.

I want to really emphasize how fucking great this is.  There is absolutely no reason that the females of an alien species that lays eggs should have breasts; in fact, there is absolutely no reason that the females of an otherwise entirely humanoid and mammallike species should have permanent teats hanging off their chests.  It's a real accident of human evolution, probably sexual selection gone haywire (much like the male peacock's tail), and no one should expect to see it in an alien species, no matter how bipedal, no matter how humaniform.  But we are trained to expect it, from every other movie, even supposedly well-scientific fare like Avatar.  True, one has to grudgingly accept that the only reason the Green Martians aren't slapped with big old scaly mammary glands on their giant frames is that the Red Martians already exist to be hot when needed, but even so the boobless Tharks are nonetheless a very real accomplishment.

But it is a movie, and you can't escape cleavage forever, so in a fine coincidence, and in the first glimpse that our hero may not be the cynical pacifist scum he pretends to be, John Carter becomes embroiled in the daring rescue of your genuine damsel in distress.  She is Dejah Thoris the non-titular Princess of Mars, specifically the Princess of Helium, running from her existential enemy and unwanted husband-to-be, Sab Than, the despot of the Predator City.  Sab Than is a puppet of the White Martians, the Therns, a mysterious race of superhumans and shapechangers that prefer to rule from behind the thrones of the worlds they exploit.  (Maybe you see what I mean about needing your decoder ring.)

Pictured: strong female character.  Well, if EVE was...

Through the power of wanting to have sexual intercourse with Lynn Collins, John Carter flees the Thark camp with her and by her side becomes the instrument of Helium's, and Mars', salvation and unification.

That is so crassly glib that I had no right to say it, although there probably isn't any part of it that isn't technically accurate.  Through their adventures, John Carter does come to fall in love with Dejah Thoristhis much is preordained, one supposes, but it is not therefore an easy and linear progression from meet-cute at point A to harmless misunderstanding at point B to reconciliation at point C.  It is a surprisingly interesting and moving courtship, and hardly all one way, and the misunderstandings are far from harmless.

Initially, she considers him from a coldly scientific standpointas Dejah Thoris is a scientistfirst as a specimen, then as a madman, and then as a liar.  He comes to trust her even more slowly, and when they escape the custody of the Tharks together, it is only because one wants something from the other; and even when he is prepared to sacrifice himself for her, it is at the end of a lie she's told him to manipulate him into doing what she wanted.  But he does it anyway, because despite a mountain full of gold waiting for him at home, the only thing John ever really cared about is gone and irretrievable.

And this brings us to the supreme triumph of editing a little more than halfway through John Carter.  It is a cross- and match cut sequence of a power and beauty seldom witnessed.

The match cut is a technique that I think may be derided.  I'm unsure on the accuracy of that statement; citation needed, I know.  But you don't hear it talked about too much in the first placeand the things I have seen written and heard said about it are uniformly unflattering, suggesting that it's a simplistic, clumsy, amateurish thing to do.  And you almost never see it in film; you see it all the time in comics, especially Alan Moore booksWatchmen being Match Cuts: The Graphic Novel.  To be clear, a match cut is an editing technique, simply cutting from one image to a similar image in a different scene, for the juxtapository effect that the match creates

The last match cut that I saw and recognized was in The Little Mermaid a few weeks ago, where the little shell caging Ariel's voice is match cut against the setting of the sun on the last day of her two-legged existence.  One of the two directors, either Ron Clements or John Musker, reflected in their commentary that it was a real mistake.  The other one said he liked it.  Well, I liked it too.

But not nearly as much as the all-time great match/cross-cutting in John Carter.  The only match cut in film that even comes close is the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey: the bone Moonwatcher tosses into the air becomes the orbital nuclear weapons platform in.  That forceful match is only one cut, though, not nine match cuts, including a final, emotionally draining fade, embedded strategically in a montage of twenty cross-cuts (by my count, although my DVD software is also very shitty) and about sixty normal intrascene cuts.

Also, while 2001's is probably the most celebrated match cut in cinema history, it requires even more outside information than watching the rest of this movie; in order for the cut to really work, you need to know that that satellite is a weapon, which is not at all obvious on the face of the frame.  (For that matter, neither is the name of the uplifted ape, Moonwatcher.  Let's all read a damn book, I guess.)3

The match cut extravagana in John Carter begins shortly after he and his allies, including Dejah Thoris, have been cornered by the pursuing Tharks.  A battle is nigh, John Carter's superpowers and his trusty dog versus an army of trained warriors; he forces his friends to leave, content to die here and alone.  And through a series of cuts from Barsoom to Earth and back, we come to understand the man that John Carter is.  In between the spouts of sapphire blood on the golden desert sand (thank God hemocyanin won't cost you your PG-13!), we see the wonderfully contrasted, for-once-well-used blue-and-gray palette of what was left behind after an attack by unknown assailants, maybe Apaches, maybe Union soldiersbut it doesn't really matter who.

Is it obvious?  Yes.  Is it manipulative?  Yes.  Film is an obvious and manipulative medium.  That's why people watch movies.  It's why John Carter's battle/burial sequenece is one of my favorite in cinema ever, without exaggeration, even if it's amateurish, even if it's clumsy, and especially because it's simple.

(Probably needless to say, it is likewise composer Michael Giacchino's finest moment in the film.)

This isn't, as far as I know, in the novels.  It is at least not in A Princess of Mars.  It is a substantial piece of character creationdone without a word, shown and never toldand, yep, it makes me tear up every time.  It also surprised me the first time, and still surprises me now, because there is no reason that a Disney pulp movie, or any action-adventure movie, needed a character with this much depth to his background and darkness in his presentnot only a widower but the father of a murdered child? not only grieving but actively suicidal?  It's frankly amazing.  And I defy you to claw out a tenth of the emotion of this less than five minute sequence, from the whole two hours-plus corpus of The Hunger Games.

John doesn't die halfway through the film, of course (if for no other reason than we know he's still alive in 1890s NYC), and by shades a lighter tone returns, because a lonely place of dying is a nice place to visit but you don't want to live there.

They make yet again with great jokes and with dumb jokes that are each in their own way delightful ("I'm getting away!" is a standout, and I won't insult you by telling you to which category it belongs).  Unlike the eternal grim cage of, for example, a Christopher Nolan Batman flick, the possibility of a return to real life still remains for John Carter.  If he had to go all the way to Barsoom to find it, all the better, because Barsoom is rad.

The necessity of the battle/burial sequence is thus made more fully clear when John and Dejah Thoris finally come together.  When read in the full context of the film, that sequence takes on a new meaning, now barely even a metaphor any longer, but it still serves that metaphorical function with power and clarity.  We understand without having to be told (though, lest anyone be left behindhey, there are kids watchingwe are, essentially, told) that John no longer wishes to lay down alongside his wife and child; that while he may have put them in the ground years ago, he's now, finally, buried them here on Mars.

John rediscovers his capacity for living a life that he can recognize and be proud ofI don't know if he ever discovers a capacity for true heroism, in the strictest sense, for when John fights it's for himself and his friends, rather than grander ideals.  On the one hand, John Carter serves as a powerful polemic against pacifism, that's true; but it is more a character study than a declaration of principle, a story of a man moving from grief to acceptance and back to life in a way that so few action heroes ever get to experience.  As a result, John Carter declaring to which world he truly belongs has a reality, maturity and even catharsis to it that I don't know if I've ever seen an action-adventure movie decide to have.

In the midst of the action and adventure, there is one further scene I want to dwell upon, just for a moment.  It's nothing as awe-inspiring as the battle and burial, but I do like it very much, because it involves Mark Strong, who is never lame, as Matai Shang, the Thern that pulls Sab Than's strings.  He takes John, a captive of Zodanga, and by extension, the Therns, on a magical mystery tour through the Predator City.  Shang shifts shape as he walks with John in thrall, in that so very neat, old-fashioned way, where one actor walks behind a pillar and another walks out.  As they travel, he explains what his people do: they manage the decay and chaos of civilizations, feeding off their misery and excess.  How exactly, I have no idea, but Strong projects such a palpable menace that it doesn't matter that we don't understand the processes behind the depredations of the space gods, only that they are powerful, and that they are pitiless.  When the cosmic monster identifies John's home by his the sound of his accent, it chills; make no mistake, Earth is next.  Even when John wins, the seeds of his defeat remain in the Therns' immortal existence.

"...And once we return Barsoom to the gold standard, we'll basically be done."

Immortal, yesbut not bulletproof, as John well knows.  And on the off chance I've spoiled every damned turn in this movie so far for you, I won't spoil its final twist.  Which is just, frankly, great.

Thanks for the stories, Ned.

Now do your part.  Go watch John Carter again, and have some faith, because like a fucking phoenix, he may yet rise again.


Score: 9/10!

1 So, can you guess which one of these fucking things is not on a blu-ray in print anywhere, or ever had, as far as I can detect, a Region 1 blu-ray release?  (Yes, including the song.)  Congratulations!  Through the simple application of cynicism, you were able to get it right on the very first try.  But do you know what movie does have a blu-ray release, and which's cruel computer tyrants thought might fill the aching void in my heart where Brian De Palma's space movie isn't?  SphereSpheeeeere.
2 Or, as Tars Tarkus says, "My right arms—my right arms!"  Ooohh, I hate it when science fiction stories do that!
3 It should just be admitted that I don't really read books much anymore, in part due to document review having degraded my attention span if not my reading skills (don't go to law school, kids), and in part because I'm inherently lazy lacking in imagination visually oriented.  90% of the novels I've read in my life I read before I was 20, Princess of Mars not being amongst them.  But John Carter made me care enough about John Carter that I am listening to it on the Audible.  (It's not as good as the movie.)


  1. I... fuck. I had an entire well written and interesting reply written up and the fucking thing deleted it. Bastards. Anyway, I enjoyed the read, Ide. You really should have listened to The Mob and caught John Carter in theaters. It was definitely a film that translated incredibly well to the big screen and all the theater audio and visual experiences that brings with it.

    I still preach the glory of John Carter and attempt to rehabilitate and redeem it to anyone who will listen to me: friends, family, co-workers, etc. I mourn the fact that the film was so brutally abused and mishandled by its owners before and during its theatrical run even up to the present day. The fact that no sequels will be forth coming when I see the garbage being spewed out week after week infuriates and saddens me greatly.

    You mention the trailer, and I do clearly recall my first thoughts when I saw a trailer for the film. At the time, I had thought it some derivative rip-off of Star Wars Episode II, specifically the area scene at that films climax. Wow. George Lucas wishes Episode II could have had even a fraction of the quality and greatness of John Carter. Also, the burial/battle scene level of amazingness is something Lucas can't even dream of, let alone attain. Damn. I am in total agreement on that scene. It's damn close to perfection and always gets me a little misty. Anyway, keep up the good work, sir.


  2. Yeah, I absolutely loved this movie. It was way better than any of the Star Wars prequels.

  3. What specifically about this year made you lose your faith in democracy?

    1. I saw Things To Come and it turns out that being run by a benign dictatorship of Airmen would be far superior.

      Seriously-it's not that anarchists posing as legislators is entirely new to 2013, but it's this year of all the others I've lived that's come closest to proving to me that Article I was a real mistake.

      The concept of federalism is a real turd, too.

  4. "Pro" movie critics got it wrong, again. This is a great film.

  5. I've been preaching this to you for a while now. Good to see you on board. Pro critics often miss the point. These are the same guys who would have panned Star Wars back in 77.

  6. Appreciate the comments, dudes, especially David. And you're right, I really missed out on not seeing John Carter in the theaters. It's the way of the past few years--until this year, I'd missed pretty much all of the best spectacle films while they were in theaters.