Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Barsoom: JOHN CARTER

John Carter begins three times. First, there’s a sequence that begins with a splash of expository narration before joining a conflict in media res with solar-powered flying vessels clashing in the skies above the planet Barsoom. Next, a young man (Daryl Sabara) arrives at the home of his recently departed uncle and, as a condition of the man’s will, is given a journal to read. Now, through his own words, we are properly introduced to that uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War veteran looking for gold out west while trying to avoid capture. And then, he’s mysteriously, accidentally transported to Barsoom. These three beginnings do more than place the narrative in framing devices like so many nesting dolls. It’s a narrative technique that emphasizes the protagonist’s status as a man out of time and space.

So too is the film’s source material. John Carter first appeared in print from the author Edgar Rice Burroughs, he of Tarzan fame, in the year 1912, exactly 100 years ago. Consequently, bits and pieces of the story can be traced through much of the previous century’s popular science fiction from Flash Gordon and Robinson Crusoe on Mars to Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, and Avatar. The trick of adapting John Carter after all these years is to make new what is old, to make fresh what has already been thoroughly chewed, to reconstitute a story, the DNA of which has permeated the genre in ways big and small these many years.

Up to the task is director Andrew Stanton, whose animation work for Pixar includes WALL-E, a favorite of mine and one of the very best sci-fi films of recent years. He makes his live action debut with John Carter and, much like his colleague Brad Bird proved with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there’s definitely something to be said for the animator’s eye applied to live action. Here is a film so wonderfully composed, so imbued with visual energy of a sturdy, meticulous kind that this becomes no mere studio programmer and rarely feels old-fashioned or stuffy in any way. No, this is a film that slides into its timeless qualities in a grand Hollywood style, with spectacle and pageantry so lush, so vivid and sweeping, that oftentimes it feels like what Cecil B. DeMille or David Lean would have done with space opera.

The film finds John Carter unexpectedly displaced to Barsoom, a dusty rust-tinged desert planet with regal red humanoids clashing for control of the planet while the tall, green, four-armed tribe of Tharks remains neutral and isolated in the barren wilderness. Barsoom, Carter soon learns, is what he knows as Mars. Its atmosphere and gravity give him extraordinary powers of strength and speed; he can cross vast distances in a single leap, kill a Thark with a single blow. This impresses the leader of the Tharks, the first beings of Barsoom to stumble upon this strange creature they first refer to as a “white worm” before finding ways to communicate with him, though they mistake “Virginia” as his species name rather than his homeland.

The Tharks clash over what to do with the man. One grumbling tribal leader (Thomas Haden Church) believes Carter should be put to the test against fearsome beasts in their punishing arena. But the Tharks’ leader (Willem Dafoe) is inquisitive and hopeful. He believes they’ve found a super-powered champion for their people. This is also the belief of the beautiful and tough princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), who crash-lands while fleeing a marriage to her nemesis (Dominic West) that was arranged by her father (Ciarán Hinds) as a peace treaty. For his part, Carter just wants to go home, but his curiosity and his desire to somehow help these strange people compels him to learn more about these warring tribes. After all, to return to Earth he will need all the help he can get learning about mysterious alien shape-shifters who were involved in getting him into this predicament and whose leader (Mark Strong), unbeknownst to Carter, is the true catalyst for the war on Barsoom.

This is a richly imagined world brought to life with strong filmmaking that, wonder of wonders, trusts an audience to understand aspects of plot without too much of a fuss. Powerful moments, like when an alien battle is crosscut with an Earth-bound burial flashback, sketch in backstory and juxtapose it with an exciting forward pace to draw a fuller picture of Carter’s mental state with incredible ease. The script by Stanton with Mark Andrews and the great novelist Michael Chabon has a wonderful flow, slipping through its narrative loops with a minimum of fuss and delivering big action setpieces without seeming to strain over much towards preordained plot points. The dialogue, so often a sticking point in these earnest throwback blockbusters, is nicely polished. The regal dialogue of the royal Barsoomian people comes off not as stiff fantasy gobbledygook, but vivid pseudo-historical regality whereas the Tharks have a nice tribal feeling and Carter himself has a nice rascally Southern drawl. The actors seem grateful for the chance to do more than pose for effects; they have a world to inhabit and characters to play.

Stanton exhibits a helpful curiosity in the workings of this fantasy world that match the bewildered Carter. The long middle section of the film in which we are introduced to various technologies, traditions, legends, villages, cities, vehicles, heroes, villains, and creatures (including Woola, a squishy, speedy monster-dog who I found more adorable than the dogs in The Artist, Beginners, and Hugo combined) is simply wonderful filmmaking. The effects are wonderful, but Stanton grounds them and makes them work as a cohesive whole. They’re neither confusing, nor overly explained. The costumes, all loose, flowing, ancient-alien chic, and the sets, from humble huts to towering castles, are just as lovingly designed and executed. It all just simply works together as a terrific example of world building while still telling a compelling, exciting, and, yes, even moving story.

It’s by nature a somewhat predictable story, seeing as it has arrived pre-recycled by its genre peers over so many decades, and the film is not without its rough patches, to be sure. But it’s a film told with such energy and a high entertainment factor that I found it especially irresistible. Like the best films of its genre, John Carter is a film that draws upon archetypes – here it’s a crypto-western that shakes off the “crypto” by more or less starting as one – and extrapolates, reinterpreting visceral, primeval stories into a form that expands the imagination. Here’s a satisfying film that, with a flourish of its sweeping Michael Giacchino score, opens up a new world before your very eyes and, whatever its influences, whatever its source material has influenced, manages to become something entirely its own.

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