When this film opens it does so deceptively, utilizing the now tried and true meta book ending technique of merging fiction with reality. Young Ned, or Edgar Rice Burroughs as he is known to the rest of the world, is called to his unique uncles manor home under mysterious circumstances and there finds a journal that dictates the most magical of his Uncle’s adventures; a journal which he then publishes under his own name as a fictional book, a book that is then many years later adapted into this very film. It’s a möbius strip of meta and one that is meant to manage our descent into this fantastic world like a pressurization point on a dive, it’s an anchor weight of reality for when the winds pick up. We know this earth is real and that there was such a city on it, we know that this man lived there and that he published that very book, so why couldn’t it all have happened just like this? Well, for one because it is a plaintively ridiculous story once it gets going and this is what makes the intro sequence so deceptive; the rest of the film pays no such heed to our current concern for verisimilitude, charging instead head first into adventure and leaving worries like grit, darkness and realism back in reality, where they belong.
John Carter cannot be taken seriously, leaving aside the story and the ridiculous vocabulary – try and keep a straight, critical face when Willem Dafoe’s Jorak of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas, informs us over the opening credits that the planet Mars is more accurately referred to as Barsoom – the very fact that it is set somewhere without the atmosphere required to support most space stations let alone a constantly scantily clad cavalry man from Virginia makes any attempts at serious storytelling untenable. Therefore a film of it must find an anterior approach, like embracing the ridiculousness. Though many modern movies have attempted to ingratiate the selves with the old timey “boys own” ethos few have succeeded and the failures all share a single, common flaw; dignity. No matter how they may act or what we may think of them the fact of the matter is that no-one who makes a movie is truly immature: there is always at least a hint of art inspired artifice of business bureaucracy there to corrupt the innocence and so the films are watered down so that they may have a wider commercial appeal or garner greater respect from the critics. While these are both admirable goals they are contrary to the ideal of a good boys-own, which is to give us the simplest most puerile pulp pictures possible, because they’re oft the most fun.
Where then is there to turn for such a childish style of filmmaking, or at least the closest facsimile available, but an animation studio? And which animation studio should one ever look to but PIXAR? Though this is not technically a PIXAR film it was headed by one of their core directors Andrew Stanton and utilized a whole host of the studios technology and techniques, as Brad Bird did when he helmed the latest “Mission:Impossible”. Technically the direction here is very reminiscent of the work Bird did in his film; the edits early on for instance are very clever examples of visual storytelling, the kind you would find in an animation, and are very comically potent besides. He also implements a base colors coding scheme to help clarify the action scenes: with the good humans being blatantly blue, the bad ones red and the animals in between all green. I loved this approach in “Ghost Protocol” and though the action that it is used to enlighten here is much less inspired and intelligent I still feel that the idea itself is a great one.
Of course there is another layer of meaning to the technique in this individual instance thanks to the metaphorical importance of the colors chosen; humanoids in a civil war, one side red and one side blue. Sound familiar? There is an obvious metaphor being made in the movies Mars sections, one that mirrors almost directly the world from which Carter came and the war that he barely came through; this place doesn’t just look like John Ford’s old West it acts like it too. That these people are all red skinned and all bleed blue is nice touch that many will miss the importance of, thinking perhaps that there is a Native American connotation to their fake tan appearance; when really it is showing implicitly that no matter how deep the inherent conflict between them these people are all actually of the same stock, the reds blue underneath and so forth, that it is brother killing brother. For the record it is the war obsessed, primitive Thark people that play the role of Native American parallel; what a flattering depiction that must be, regardless of the respect and heroism that they also show in the picture. It’s an intricate metaphor certainly, but overall it’s also a relatively meaningless one. The Civil War is by now well over and it’s scars healed in all but the most backwater of minds, so if you’ve structured your message – even one as vague as “War is Bad” – specifically around that idea the the film is doomed to fail in finding an attachment to its audience through this method.
Worse than failing though is the fact that they tried on this front at all; this is not the kind of movie that needs stringent metaphor or heavy moral meanings to explain or lend import to its creations, it should just be willing to set them free and be done with it. Every time that the film attempts to get serious it lost me and I imagine many others too. The central section of the movie in particular is the most perturbing for this reason, it devotes itself near entirely to an exorbitant amount of exposition, all of which fails to further explain one single element: we are a willing audience by that stage, we have been given the basics so cleanly thanks to that aforementioned animation style and so I have to wonder why all of a sudden Stanton decided to turn the film into such a slog. Even if he had been successful the idea is inherently antithetical to the films overall approach and breaks the pacing of the adventure entirely. Some more visual inventiveness in the climax comes close to salvaging the experience but by then it is almost too late.
George Lucas has cited Burrough’s books as a major inspiration on his Star Wars scripts and having now seen them come to life you can tell that Stanton was similarly inspired by the Star Wars films while he was making this feature; unfortunately though, despite the beat of directorial intentions, the result is more akin to the latter day trilogy than the earlier classics. There is a lot of fun to be had in the creatures and conflicts – Stanton does succeed in implementing the comedic relief critter in a way that Jar Jar could only dream of – but this is too quickly put aside in favor of moot character work and plodding politics. It’s as if the film itself were aging as it was shot and reached a point mid-way through where it started to think that it was too cool for all this kids stuff and tried to mature ahead of it’s time. The point of setting a film on Mars or some other imagined land is that you can get away with showing anything that your imagination can muster, so it is a shame to see a film that is initially so creative turn so quickly back to the tropes of the real world, it’s a shame because the very reason we went to see this was because Earth was a world we too wanted to escape. So in a way the opening act is perhaps more prescient than it initially suggests and it is the intro to this review that decieves (meta?).
P.S. Does this mean that we can finally get that Extraordinary Gentleman sequel greenlit? The characters are now in the film canon and the technology already exists?