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“John Carter” review – Barsoom or bust!

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What if you made a blockbuster and nobody came?

Disney and Andrew Stanton appear to be confronting this rather disagreeable reality with the release of their would-be  franchise starting sci-fantasy epic, “John Carter”.  The advance word had it that this was a disaster in waiting, with no buzz to speak of, a dismal series of confused trailers and an industry-wide belief that Disney were getting ready to write off the film before they even released it.

I’m going to stand up and say that this corporate defeatism sucks because “John Carter” is a truly fantastic piece of cinematic entertainment and it deserves to be a massive hit.

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Unlike my compadre, Geek Soul Brother, I’m not familiar with the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels from which this film is adapted, so my enthusiasm comes purely from seeing and enjoying the movie – it feels utterly contemporary in terms of effects and technology but at the same time oddly comforting and familiar, presumably because we’ve seen decades of sci-fi and fantasy movies appropriating Burroughs’ settings and ideas for other adventures.

If you’ve seen “Star Wars”, “Avatar”, “Stargate” or the 1980 “Flash Gordon”, the chances are that you’ll see something in “John Carter” which seems at once brand new and as comfortable as a favourite hoodie – it’s arguable that this works against the film, as younger viewers without the appreciation for cinematic history may feel that this putative blockbuster is ripping off the very films which are almost certainly guilty of ripping off Burroughs pulp hero and his antics on Barsoom, the Martian people’s name for their home planet.

The director of this adaptation is Andrew Stanton, who makes his live action film-making debut after making the likes of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” for Pixar Animation Studios, following in the recent footsteps of colleague Brad Bird, who went from directing “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” to helming “Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol”.

It’s a very confident and striking film, realised with a budget which is equal to the scope of Burroughs Martian adventures, and one which dares to treat the audience as being smart enough to handle an occasionally non-linear style of storytelling and an opening section which takes a while establishing Civil War cavalryman Carter’s history and character before we get into the bang-crash action which accompanies Carter’s arrival on Mars/Barsoom.

Refreshingly, Stanton hasn’t marooned his actors in the midst of all-out spectacle and gives them material to work with – unlike George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels, you never get the sense that the director occasionally regards his actors as obstacles to getting on with the eye candy and CG-assisted mayhem.

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That’s not to say that this is in any way inaccessible or high-faluting fare – this is a crowd-pleasing sci-fi adventure with bonkers set-pieces from now until Sunday next and the best digital characters – four armed, nine-foot tall Tharks – this side of a James Cameron flick.  It’s just that actors of the calibre of Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Samantha Morton and Dominic West (Sheffield represent!) are not mired by green-screen acting and reacting to virtual characters and can give performances which are genuinely engaging.  They’re clearly not playing Shakespeare but they’re equally not phoning it in, because it’s only a sci-fi picture.

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I was particularly taken by Lynn Collins, who plays the Martian Princess and scientist Dejah Thoris, whose character appears to had the majority of work done to bring her up to date for a contemporary audience – she’s absolutely capable of saving herself and getting out of the cliff-hanging dangers in which she finds herself battling to survive.

She’s not a Princess who simpers and waits to be rescued – more an able and equal partner to Carter in the adventure that they find themselves in.  Collins struggles a bit with a received pronunciation accent which somehow contrives to make her character sound more like Kate Middleton than anybody else, but her energy and earnestness carried the day for me.

I’m not wanting to diminish Kitsch’s work in any way – he’s got the most difficult role here, in some respects, as his adventuring hero could very easily be the stuff of dog-eared cliche.  He’s a Southern gentleman with a tragic past, he’s a rebel who doesn’t want to fight but is forced to, and a audience identification figure who has miraculous superhuman powers and rugged good looks and fabulous hair.

You should hate him, but you really don’t.  I’m not familiar with Kitsch’s work in “Friday Night Lights”, so I really only have this film and his brief cough-and-spit cameo in as Gambit in the “Wolverine” spin-off movie to draw from, but I was quite impressed by him.   He’s got the ability to convey the subtle grief of Carter’s personal losses and the physicality to convincingly embody the title character’s change towards becoming a confident, take charge, swashbuckling action hero.

He’s definitely an old-fashioned hero but one who doesn’t have the old-school baggage of prehistoric attitudes to women to drag him down.  I really liked him, particularly in the scenes which book-end the main action on Barsoom, and would love to see more of his stories realised on screen.

Sadly, short of a miracle, it doesn’t seem as though we’ll get to see any more of “John Carter” tall tales told on screen if the weekend’s anaemic financial performance of the film is any indicator.

I’d suggest that if you like your sci-fi full of derring-do, devoid of fashionable snark and told by people who really know what they’re doing, you should make seeing this film on the biggest possible screen a priority – it’s an earnest, pulp adventure told with style, realised beautifully and speaking to the small, wide-eyed child who lives in the heart of every geek and nerd.

If you’ve ever looked at the screen, or read from a page and wanted to join in the impossible adventures depicted therein, “John Carter” is the film for you.

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10 Minutes with Taylor Kitsch…

Which, to his fan base from “Friday Night Lights”, can only be a good thing.

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In their continuing effort to light a fire under the marketing effort for Andrew Stanton’s epic pulp sci-fi adventure, “John Carter”, Disney have placed ten minutes of footage from the opening of the film online, which you can view here on the Disney Movie Trailers YouTube channel

It’s every bit as handsomely staged and detailed as the advance word would have it, and the escape gag woven through the opening sequence is genuinely funny and delightful in it’s escalating absurdity.

I didn’t really need confirmation that this was a film I was interested in seeing on opening weekend, but this extended first look underlined things a little for me.

Let’s hope that enough people agree for this much ballyhooed but equally controversial film to enjoy a decent opening weekend.

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“John Carter” reviews posted – what will you be seeing next weekend?

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Den of Geek has a review of Disney and Andrew Stanton’s sci-fantasy adventure, “John Carter” and have confirmed to me that it deserves my support at the box office next weekend.

As you’ll see if you click on the link to the film’s trailer, Disney are going all out in the week before release to counter some of negative early buzz and emphasise the action-adventure moments in the film, which you can hardly blame them for doing – this is the first salvo in what they must hope will become a series of movies and I’d be trying to hit as many eyeballs with as many arresting images as possible were I in their size 11 Cole Haan wingtips.

If you fancy some more advanced chitter-chatter, there’s an interesting interview over at The Guardian where Andrew Stanton talks about the process of moving into live action, his love for the Edgar Rice Burroughs books and what you chat about when Steven Spielberg asks for a meeting with you.

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There’s a more guarded review up at Total Film, but even that isn’t enough to put me off – what say you, fellow nerd travellers?

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“Avengers” Super Bowl teaser – assembled.

Hyped yet? Me, too.

It turns out that sport is good for something after all – who knew?

This Sunday’s Super Bowl featured many well-paid, overly padded men hitting one another (one word, boys – ‘rugby’) and much fuss and consternation about professional controversalist MIA shocking America by flipping the bird during Madonna’s half-time show (did anybody honestly not expect her to try to be the centre of attention?).

Yet the most interesting things to me about the Super Bowl are the absurdly expensive and deliberately positioned teaser trailers for summer blockbusters – this year saw 30 second spots advertising Disney’s “John Carter”, Universal’s “Battleship” and Relativity‘s awful looking actioner, “Act of Valor”, whose sole selling point appears to be that it stars real Navy SEAL members.   Yep, that’s one film which will definitely do well outside the US.

The fraught task of single-handedly erasing the bad after-taste of the latter trailer, then, fell to Marvel’s “The Avengers”.

Imagine if Richard Branson had one of these suits - we'd never see the end of it.

It was, quite predictably, a riot of colour, crashes, bangs and mayhem – a paroxysm of superheroic shenanigans and one-liners (“We have a Hulk”), cities in fire and iconic Avengers united on-screen for the first time.

Now, this is how you do patriotic action...

I can understand that a lot of fans of Thor, Captain America and Iron Man have felt that their individual movies didn’t serve their characters well and acted as feature-length trailers for a team-up project which didn’t have the same value for them as a solo outing for Tony Stark or Steve Rogers would have done.   I can appreciate that this would be irksome but the seven-year old nerd in me looks at this trailer and can’t wait for the end of April to roll around (May 4th in the US per this trailer).

Joss Whedon? Likes his hero shots? Surely some mistake?

 

 

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“John Carter” trailer 2 now live, “ER” fans resolutely bemused…

Taylor Kitsch is the eponymous "John Carter"...

Perspective is a funny thing.

When you’ve been around for a while, you start to see the difference between being an influencer and just being influenced.

Take this second trailer for Andrew Stanton and Disney’s “John Carter”, for example.  Many online reactions to the footage have centred around perceived echoes to scenes from “Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones” (the arena battles and the alien creatures) and “Avatar” (erm…John Carter is covered in blue monster gunk at one point?).

So, it couldn’t be the case that James Cameron and George Lucas were influenced by pulp sci-fi classics and managed to get their visions to the screen first, then?

Not skimping on the CG creatures...

I will concur that this trailer feels a little more generic and slightly ‘Bro’ audience-friendly than the first teaser – when the Led Zep tune kicked in, my eyebrow raised in sympathy.  It’s a weird choice, no doubt – better to use some sympathetic cues from Howard Shore or James Horner than to have a rather out-of-place classic rock jam being rather out-of-place in a trailer which is going to get in front of a lot of eyes in the next month or so, surely?

...Blue Man Group live at Red Rocks? No? I'll get my coat...

Films (and film-makers) are the product of their influences, just as games and developers soak up influence and project it into their craft – witness the number of fans who look at “Halo” and the lore that Bungie created and then see “Aliens” for the first time and somehow convince themselves that James Cameron is guilty of ripping off a game which came out perhaps twenty years after he began work on his film.  It’s asinine and absurd, but less well-informed fans will insist on believing it.

Does he look like an Ewok? Does he?

Influence and those who are influenced – look into it.

A Martian spaceship, yesterday..

“John Carter” is out in March 2012.

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Disney cranking up the “John Carter” hype train…

A new franchise for a classic literary character...

Disney have strongly hinted that we can expect to see a full trailer on Thursday – there’s a teaser here at Apple’s trailer site – so it appears that the hype train for their sci-fi blockbuster-in-waiting, “John Carter” is beginning to build a head of steam.

Various journos were invited to see 20 minutes of footage at Disney’s London office recently – SFX’s Dave Golder’s piece is here whilst Den of Geek’s Ryan Lambie’s story is here.

Nascent sci-fi franchises are ten-a-penny, but there are reasons to be excited by this latest would-be contender – the presence of Pixar director Andrew Stanton behind the camera is but one.  He directed “A Bug’s Life”, “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” for the digital animation wizards and that’s reason enough for me to be at the cinema on opening weekend.  “Wall-E” is probably in my top ten films of all time – “Finding Nemo” certainly is.

If he can translate his obvious storytelling gifts from one medium to another, we’re in for a treat – initial word says that he may have done just that.

My hope for this film is that it manages to make a more than decent fist of translating Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp sci-fi hero the screen and prompts studios to realise that there’s more to summer blockbusters than just superhero adaptations – there’s a wealth of classic sci-fi fiction which can be realised now in the digital era.

Of course, this could be a recipe for disaster if Hollywood lets the likes of McG and Michael Bay loose on the Golden Age of sci-fi novels.

Involuntary shudder in 5, 4, 3…

 

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