March 20th, 2012

Mars from Earth

"We're living in an age that calls darkness light." (2)

We're just back from a matinée of Andrew Stanton's John Carter, and before I say anything else, I'm going to say this film is an absolute and masterful delight. It's been a long time now since I've wanted to sit down and immediately watch a film a second time, but I did at the end of John Carter.

That said, we had to drive to Attleboro, Massachusetts to find a screen that wasn't showing it in 3D. But we did, and it was far more than worth the drive.

I first discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs through his Barsoom books when I was about eight or nine – probably the ideal time to come to them. Some will recall that Ace and Ballentine brought most of his titles back into print in the 1970s. A shame most have fallen out of print (no, I do not count Kindle or other ebooks editions) in the intervening years. But, for me, it was very fortunate timing. But, that said, this absolutely did not predispose me to believe the film would be good. If anything, quite the opposite. Here's a world I've been waiting see brought to life onscreen since I was a child (in the mid seventies, the technology to do this simply didn't exist), and I was very much afraid I would be disappointed.

I can think of few examples of critics and the public being so disastrously and unfortunately wrongheaded about a film than they have been about John Carter. It might be fair (and it might not), to say that the initial teaser played a role in how poorly this film has been perceived. Yes, it wouldn't have hurt to have stressed that this was a story from the "man who created Tarzan" or to show audiences more of the action (and, dogs, there are beautiful action sequences). And it has to be said that Stanton had a lot to do with that initial bit of advertising (which is fairly unusual when working with a company like Disney). And we know how this works now: people are baffled by a trailer, or they simply don't like it, and they start texting friends and opining on the internet; studios panic months before a film's release, as Disney clearly did in this instance; film critics sense a wave of public opinion – even if it comes from people who have decided six months ahead of a film's release that they won't see it – and so they are either predisposed or they feel obligated to write negative reviews, or they're afraid of bucking the swelling tide of expectation. This domino effect creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one goes to see the film, because people made up their minds long before they had a chance to see it (though, in fairness, reviews of John Carter have been mixed, not uniformly negative), or that it was declared "OMG THE BIGGEST BOX OFFICE FLOP EVER" only eleven days after its release.

It likely doesn't help that the source material is so obscure: a pulp novel, A Princess of Mars, published in 1917. I'm a little amazed Disney execs ever green lit the risky project (oh, and they also green lit a sequel, The Gods of Mars, which was in production, though no one can seem to agree whether or not it remains so). This means, though, that the bigwigs at Disney should have been on their toes, and they should have brought their most savvy marketing people to bear on the problem of getting people into the theater. They is what they didn't do, even though the film's production cost them in excess of $250 million (before promotional expenses).

Indeed, if you want to know just how badly Disney botched this wonderful film, read this article: "Our view: It’s now clear, after yesterday’s announcement – Disney viewed John Carter as a hospice case all along".

As for the film itself, it seems a little anticlimactic, this late in this blog entry, to begin a proper review. I suck at those, anyway. John Carter is a spectacle. A wondrous spectacle. This film rivals Avatar (a film, I'll note, that survived a wave of bad press early on, but it did so mostly because Cameron fought back) in its vision, and, as much as I love Avatar, in some ways John Carter is actually a more accomplished film (the acting of its human characters, for one thing). It's simply a beauty to watch. An alien world is brought to life. It succeeds as a post Civil-War period piece. It succeeds as good SF, especially of one of my two favorite "sub genres," the "space opera." It succeeds as a love story. As an action film, it succeeds. In its portrayal of the six-limbed Tharks it (again) rivals Avatar, by realistically portraying a six-limbed race (as the Na'vi should have been, from an evolutionary standpoint). John Carter simply succeeds.

And if you value my opinion, on any level and in any respect, you'll see this film in theaters while you can. You'll help push back against those intent on burying it and dooming similar, as-yet-unrealized films.

I swear, it actually made me happy.