Friday, March 9, 2012

“John Carter” – I swear this movie isn’t from a galaxy far, far away.

There are two things you have to know prior to going into John Carter. The first is that it is based on a story published in 1912. So, there are a lot of things I’m going to point out soon that you have to let go. The second thing is that, by all appearances, this film could easily be mistaken for a spin-off of Star Wars. For me, that was the biggest issue during the film since it’s so obvious and blatant. The good news is there are no characters even half as retarded as Jar-Jar Binks.

As I mentioned, the original story – in what later became the Barsoom series – was first published in 1912. If someone tells you this is classic science fiction, they aren’t talking about Isaac Asimov or Larry Niven, they’re talking about Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. If that means nothing to you, imagine the difference between a Playstation and an Etch-a-Sketch. The writers of the 1960’s and 1970’s were writing hard-core science fiction; stories so soaked in scientific fact and theory that you almost need a doctorate just to understand them. Writers from one hundred years ago, however, had almost nothing to go on, other than blurry images of objects in the sky, and they were forced to rely on their imaginations almost exclusively. I don’t bring this up to say one is better than the other, but because we in 2012 learn things in elementary school that were practically fantasy a hundred years ago. I’ll explain.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an ex-civil war soldier searching for a cave of gold in 1880’s Arizona. After being chased into the hills, he inadvertently finds the cave he has been searching for when a figure appears out of nowhere, only to be shot by Carter. While leaning over the dying figure, which we later learn is called a Thern, Carter touches an amulet and is transported to Mars, or Barsoom, as it is called by the natives. On Barsoom, Carter gets to his feet and tries to walk, but finds himself jumping simply by stepping. He eventually figures out how to deal with it, also discovering that he can leap hundreds of feet in a single bound. This is the first thing you have to accept and remember that the author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, probably had no idea what the gravity on Mars would actually be like. Since we’ve seen guys bouncing around on the moon and the moon has less gravity than Mars, we know that Carter simply would not be able to basically fly every time he jumps.

At this point in time, you will also have noticed that he, along with the other humans on Mars, are breathing freely. Again, we had barely learned how to fly by 1912, let alone figured out what the atmosphere of other planets was like. And, yes, the story has other humans on Mars. We don’t know how they got there, nor is this ever explained to us, but we are told that they are divided into a red team and blue team (seriously) and have been at war for years while the planet has slowly been dying. It honestly does not matter and is only another thing that we, the audience, must accept as part of the premise. For those of you who are slow, this is your basic “man is flung into a conflict; wants nothing but to go home; becomes the reluctant hero; attempts to rescue the princess” story. The proverbial hero’s journey. And, yes, there is a princess (Lynn Collins).

As I told the theater employee after the screening – because I enjoyed the story so much and that it didn’t have any glaring holes, I was able to ignore the fact that they were blatantly ripping off Star Wars. I know that a lot of people will argue that they were just paying homage to Star Wars. While they might be correct, it’s harder to accept when LucasFilm’s Industrial Light and Magic produced the film and the special effects look like they came from the cutting room floor of George Lucas’s bathroom. Just from the previews, you already know there is an arena scene where Carter is forced to battle a giant beast, a race of tall, green, four-armed Martians that look suspiciously Star Wars-esque, and that there are ships shooting lasers at each over a desert planet. On top of that, there are two scenes resembling the pod races of The Phantom Menace and speeder-bike scenes of Return of the Jedi, not mention the Martians are firing rifles that look like they were stolen from Tusken Raiders, and everyone insists on fighting with swords even though they have invented advanced war planes, ground vehicles, and lasers. This movie could have been called Star Wars: Mars Attacks and they wouldn’t have needed to change anything.

But, as I said, I found myself really enjoying this movie. Despite its resemblance to The Phantom Menace – one of the crappiest movies of all time – I found enjoyment in the little things that set the movie apart, including a fun little twist that you won’t see coming. The only question remaining, and this is one I always ask, is did they stay true to the book or did they flush it down the toilet like so many books before it? To answer this, I went to the local bookstore (because of course they were going to have copies for sale). I found a copy, which actually includes the first three books of the Barsoom series. What I didn’t expect to see, sitting right next to it was a copy of the novelization of the movie. Yep, smells like Jar-Jar to me, too.

Rating: If you’re a story guy like me, don’t ask for any of your money back. If you are unable to stop picturing George Lucas drowning in his swimming pool of money, ask for six dollars back.

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