April 7th, 2012

Review: John Carter (of Mars)

I wrote this three weeks ago and then forgot to take the file to Chicago, duhh. I assume everybody's seen the film by now, but I'm not sure what else to do with the review but post it.

carterswoola.jpgSaw John Carter with a few geek friends, all of them (but me) EEs. It got lousy reviews for the most part, but I was intrigued by the idea of a quarter-billion dollar pulp novel. Because I know what pulp novels are (and because I read A Princess of Mars when I was 15 or so) I was by no means disappointed. Guys, it's a pulp novel. This means that it's either about cleavage or else bashing your enemies to a pulp.

Disney made this one, so the cleavage is minimal, and the pulping quite bloodless. The costuming and CGI creations, on the other hand, were breathtaking in a sort of half-Spartacus, half-Steampunk way that we don't see very often. (I really can't think of another example, though the very uneven 1961 George Pal film Atlantis, the Lost Continent comes close.) Much of the film was shot on location on an alien planet called Utah. The rest came out of whole CGI cloth.

And that, my friends was worth seeing. The tusked, four-armed native Martians called Tharks looked absolutely real, right down to the eyes. They fidgeted, they pouted, they even wept, and they did not all look alike. It is a credit to the production quality and attention to detail that in other films the Tharks might be consider monsters; here they were more or less the bad boys you stayed away from in high school or (very) occasionally befriended. There actually weren't a lot of monsters, once you discount the Tharks as ugly but mostly human dumbasses. One of them, however, was my favorite living thing in the whole film: Carter's six-legged Martian dog sidekick Woola (technically a calot) who might accurately be described as Jabba the Mutt.

I liked the human characters a lot less. After all, I've already seen Spartacus. Carter himself (Taylor Kitsch) was forgettable beefcake. The bald guys were unconvincing, and reminded me of mysterious, hair-challenged heavies in a multitude of bad media pieces all the way back to Ming the Merciless. The princess-scientist Deja Thoris had remarkably durable eye makeup considering the roughousing she engages in. Then again, so did Sophia Loren in the underappreciated 1957 big gun epic The Pride and the Passion. (So, in fact, do most movie heroines who aren't ugly by design.) The Zodangans and the denizens of the city of Helium (what was Burroughs thinking?) were toga-epic extras, who brought all the passion of plum pudding to their parts.

I twitched every time I heard someone say, "...then Helium falls." Hey, if Helium falls, why do we fill blimps with it?

The steampunkish walking city of Zodanga was a nice touch, explaining as it does why Mars appears to have long lines spanning its deserts. That's just Zodanga tracks, and Zodanga has a lot of legs. Nonetheless, it's a very big item, and if you're not so dumb as to just sit and wait for it to step on you, I'd guess it's fairly easy to outrun.

Unfortunately, the one big thing that bothered me immensely in the film was key to the plot: Carter's Supermannish ability to jump a hundred feet straight up, supposedly because of the lower gravity on Mars. Sorry, no. Mars's gravity is 3/8 that of Earth, so a 200-pound ruffian would still weigh 75 pounds. I might believe fifteen feet straight up, or 60 feet in a horizontal long jump with a good running start. And if Carter can, the slender and apparently muscular Tharks should be able to. Not so.

That's my main complaint, apart from the fact it's sometimes difficult to tell exactly what's going on. I'll freely admit that I didn't care. John Carter is about spectacle; fights among improbable flying machines, goofy aliens, and endless startling things purchased by the compound interest of Moore's Law. Don't expect it to make sense. (Alas, don't expect it to make much money, either.) Resist the temptation to crack helium jokes. (If Deja Thoris is a Princess of Helium, why doesn't she have a squeaky voice?) Just turn your brain off and enjoy the scenery.

Guiltily recommended.