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March 20, 2012

"John Carter" Turning Into Costly Flop
With Mini-Review-- It's Pretty Good!

Disney apparently did no want to call it what it should be called -- "John Carter of Mars" -- instead calling it "John Carter," which hardly tips you off to the Planetary Romance genre. (Planetary Romance is swords & sorcery in space -- I guess they mean "romance" as in "Arthurian romance." I.e., adventure.)

Apparently this is because a movie called Mars Needs Moms just bombed, so Hollywood of course decided that People hate Mars.


It's underperforming. It actually made $184 million, which sounds great, but it has a $300 million cost, when advertising is figured in.

Plus, it says theaters are taking half that haul, which doesn't sound right to me (I thought the movie makers take 90% of a movie's first and second weeks of box office), but that's what it says. Maybe they made some special deal to force it into as many theaters as possible.

I saw this opening night with Verum Serum, out in California. It's good. Not great, but good. The acting's weak, the costuming and make-up is notably bad (it annoyed the hell out of me that the Red Men of Mars were instead depicted with orange tans and annoying reddish tattooing; why not just make them red?), the dialogue is worse than it needs to be (the plot here is actually pretty simple and logical -- but for some reason the filmmakers choose to make it seem more obscure and hard-to-follow than it is).

But it's fun. And it's something that we don't see from science-fiction in movies very often -- it's audacious.

So much of the science-fiction imagining you see in movies is so cramped and routine and based merely on films from ten years ago. All they seem to do is recycle plot elements from the sci-fi hits Alien, Aliens, and Terminator.

John Carter comes fairly directly from an actual writer -- not a hack hired to recycle crap from fifteen years ago -- so he gives his imagination a little license.

The ideas here are not jaw-dropping or anything. But given the dreck I'm used to seeing, it's a breath of fresh air. The Green Martian species, the savage, Spartan-like Tarks, have an oddball birth cycle (egg-layers, eggs are left in collective hostaeries, parents don't know whose hostaling is whom but just claim them upon birthing) which doesn't figure into the main conflict at all, but it's just interesting. The movie at least pays some attention to the idea that these are really actually aliens, and not just Opponents With Kewl Powers.

The Tarks, by the way, are well-done in CGI. Contrary to my normal complaint, the CGI here is good. It's the costuming that appears cheap and assembled from various left-overs at the Costume Department. Cheap plastic-looking fake-metal breastplates with some kind of nonsensical canvas cumberbonds and oddball fur at the shoulders. It doesn't look futuristic, and it doesn't look retro. It just doesn't look real. It doesn't look as if a real culture created it for practical use; it looks like someone did a sketch attempting to look odd and succeeded at only that.

But there are hints of intelligence scattered throughout. The film opens in New York City, circa 1888 or so, then flashes back to Arizona Territory some ten years earlier.

Here's something I hate: When a movie's screenwriters plainly do not know anything except what they've seen in other movies. For example, if I say "set a scene in Arizona Territory," what is the first thing that pops into your head?

Iconic sun-bleached landscape, mesas. Badlands and Goblin Rock. You know. The crap you see every time you see Arizona.

So I was happy when this movie showed me a forested area of Arizona, in winter, where they had to break the skin of ice on the water-troughs to let the horses drink. See, the writers actually decided "People have seen the same goddamned three cliches about Arizona six thousand times already; let's maybe show Arizona in winter, in the hills."

It's not enough to make this a great movie, but it's nice that somewhere here there's a working brain.

Another thing I liked was the "Predatory City," something that is wholly novel (to me, at least). A walking city, moving across the landscape on huge "legs," mechanized pylons, moving from city to city to attack and conquer.

I actually didn't get nearly enough of that, but again: Hey, sure is nice to see something new for once. This is science-fiction, right? Things are supposed to make me go "Gee whiz," right?

Well, nice to see that for once.

The plot is mostly dead-simple -- save the princess from an impeding forced marriage to a ruthless, murderous thug! -- but it's a fun ride.

The final battle does not take place at the Predator City. Why? I do not know. You'd have to ask the writers why they ate Stupid Pills when putting together act three.

But I liked it. Fun sword & sorcery stuff (or, "sword and planet," they call it sometimes).

Nothing really objectionable for the kids. Some blood is shed, but mostly of Tarks, and that blood is blue, and you don't see much of it anyway. I don't think any human blood is prominent.

One fun thing is that when John Carter is killing a lot of Tarks, the bodies start to pile up, and the frame clearly references one of those Frank Frazetta Conan covers, where piles of dead men lay at his feet. But cool as that is, they do it rather bloodlessly, Disney style. Still, kind of neat.

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