I’m not really sure if I should bother reviewing the film, considering everyone seems to have made up their minds before it even hit theaters.
John Carter’s fared poorly with critics, even though most of them gave mixed but somewhat positive reviews. Leonard Maltin gave a very balanced review before encouraging anyone interested to see it. Richard Corliss at Time ended with “I’m glad Stanton made John Carter; I just don’t know why he did,” after dishing out both praise and complaints (also stealing my “transcend or subvert the genre” line). There’s a legion of uninspired and unimpressed reviews, though, and a bunch of negative ones—the most critical being the one at Slant magazine, which was half review and half lengthy ad-hominum, calling the movie “a dollop of oatmealy, sick person’s poop.” (For balancing reasons, I’ll put Mark Holcomb’s glowing review for the Village Voice here.)
No, the film is not Casablanca, nor Citizen Kane. Nor is it on par with SF greats like 2001 or Blade Runner, or Avatar, a movie relative to John Carter in aesthetics, theme, and time. But oatmealy, watery poop? That’s the kind of derision I’d heap on a Star Wars prequel, or a direct-to-DVD release from some shithouse production company like Asylum—who happened to release Princess of Mars a few years ago, with the production values of the most insipid of SyFy TV movies and porn star/Juno Reactor eye-candy Traci Lords as Princess Dejah.
John Carter’s apparent sin is that its overinflated budget—$250 million, or more—only resulted in an above average, retroactively derivative, but most of all fun, blockbuster that’s failing to bust blocks. While it looks good, it doesn’t look as good as Avatar. And it’s got a long, long history of defying filmmakers, from Loony Tunes producer Bob Clampett, to Ray Harryhausen, to Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau and a half-dozen others, as a bad legacy to overcome. Add in that director Andrew Stanton worked magic on Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Wall-E, which translates to high expectations on behalf of viewers.
But the film feels like it was destined to fail. Disney’s lead-up marketing was half-hearted, starting with the decision to cut “of Mars” from the title, leaving us with the listless “John Carter” which tells the viewer nothing. Some too-little, too-late ads couldn’t make up for the lack of hype, the best of which being the ones for a Comedy Central special preview, proclaiming “John Carter / The Original Badass.” Plus, it was released well in advance of summer blockbuster season. And with its hyperinflated budget, the film needed to open to $100 million in order to spawn the franchise Disney was hoping for—a longshot given how badly the film was mis-marketed. Most of these relate back to the film’s director being brand new to live-action, and its executives being new on the job. The numbers are back in, and it broke $30.6 million in the US, charting second after The Lorax, plus $77 million overseas, leaving it the bomb critics proclaimed it as well before its release.
On the flipside. It’s been tracking very well with viewers, what few actually went to see it, and it has 70% user approval ratings at every site I’ve glanced at (Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, a B+ on CinemaScore, et al.). And that vocal minority is getting active, not just on the review aggregates but in the Blogosphere and on Twitter. With very few exceptions, the changes to the novel’s plot, and addition of elements from the second book, Gods of Mars, went over well with fans—good, because for the most part, the movie needed most of them. They leave John Carter capable but not superhuman enough to plow through each challenge undeterred (as he does a little too often in the first book), with Dejah Thoris more of a competent individual and not a lost romantic macguffin.
As for the movie itself? It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s nowhere near an outhouse joke. But it’s not the cure for cancer that its price-tag might indicate. (Of course, this is Disney; they can afford to banter around with budgets in the triple-digit millions. Why should the film’s budget matter?) The effects are fantastic, with some amazing computer wizardry powering the machine-city of Zodanga and a variety of flying contraptions, plus all sorts of motion-capture Barsoom natives. The set and equipment design is spot-on amazing, giving a strong feel of the alien world, yet staying accurate to its source material (in essence when not in literal presence). I do wish there’d been more details to differentiate the Tharks, since there’s less feeling of individualization among them compared to Avatar’s Na’vi; the motion-capture work is good, but they’re like carbon copies. It’s easier to tell the humans—err, Red Martians—apart, even under their intricate costumes, henna-like tattoos, and British accents.
Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, does an admirable job, but it’s Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris who really pulls things off. A strong supporting cast, including William Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, Dominic West, and Mark Strong, round things out: all told, there’s no complaints about the acting. Kitsch isn’t my first choice for Carter, and I’m not sure he’s the perfect actor for the job, but he gave a good show of things. His chemistry with Collins is lacking, but passable; I think her performance was strong enough to make it work.
My big complaints would be that the movie has a surfeit of introductions, some of which should have been tossed to get Carter on Mars faster—the Arizona sequences are somewhat true to the book, but more a failed attempt to generate early-film action than a useful intro; they add nothing, except a woefully underused Bryan Cranston. Second, many of the action scenes are just too short: one of the longer ones is the vaunted gladiatorial sequence shown in the trailers, which tops out around 12-15 minutes. Including some setup. That gives the film a very disjointed feel, with lengthy sections of exposition that lead to overly terse action scenes. And as a PG-13 blockbuster, it needs those action scenes long and involved for the male teen audience. Third, see my aforementioned complaints about the generalized CGI Tharks. I can also see how the film would be confusing, throwing plenty of Martian terminology and history at the viewer; it made me giddy as a fanboy, but not everyone’s familiar with the source.
I did really like the film; it’s accurate to its source material, it’s entertaining, it’s got a good sense of humor and solid enough characters backing up cool visuals and an eclectic, action-filled plot. But it just didn’t give me that mind-blown sense of wonder that I got from seeing Star Wars as a kid, or Avatar just a few years ago. (To be fair, I went into both of those with no set expectations at all, knowing nothing about them, while I’ve read Burroughs’ first novel two or three times in the past fifteen years, most recently just before the film released.) This is the kind of slightly-campy, fun adventure movie I’d shelve next to The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean.
What we’re left with is an entertaining, fun film that doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema: it’s an enjoyable SF romp that isn’t as memorable or spectacular as it should be, but isn’t the motion picture equivalent of having your teeth pulled like everyone says it is. It’s less Howard the Duck and more Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or whatever your preferential fan-favorite box-office-flop is. (I also thought John Carter was a stronger film, and truer to its source, than Disney’s previous franchise-killing flop, Prince of Persia.) It’s a niche genre film that cost too much and has a hard time appealing to those outside the SF nerd demograph. If you like no-nonsense, pulpy SF adventure, suspending your disbelief for some implausible thrills, go see it while you still can: it is worth seeing as a SF fan.
Who knew Daffy Duck had the same dreams as the rest of us?
It riffs more than a little on Dungeons & Dragons, Warcraft, and generic modern fantasy in general; the fact that it blends traditional Western animation and Japanese anime styles is both nerd-bait and a statement on the modern Western animation industry.
And good lord, does its sound crib more than a little from Uriah Heep and early Sabbeth. Pure ’70s gothic rock-metal bliss.
I’m not going to lie, I don’t like most modern fantasy novels. Not that I find the old ones any better—it’s hard to deny Robert E. Howard was a misogynist racist, product of his time or no; and too much fantasy output is rehashing the same insipid tropes robbed from Tolkien. (David Eddings and Terry Brooks, often as not, read as Tolkien fan-fics.) Granted, a blanket statement, and one which I can point to many exceptions, but I’ll stick by it. By contrast, modern epic fantasies have carved out their own niche which partially bucks the Tolkien trend, and don’t always read like bad D&D campaigns transcribed into 600+ page tomes.
No, what I really hate about modern fantasy novels is their low quality of writing. Fantasy fans may vehemently disagree with me here, fantasy is one of the most denigrated genres within the genre-fiction ghetto. And in some cases, there’s a reason for that. Every now and then I’ll get a recommendation for a new fantasy novel, another five-star bestseller, and half the time the result is disappointment—due to the author’s inept prose, trite dialogue, flat characters, stock plot, flaccid developments, overuse of description, the author’s disturbing rape/torture fantasies, etc.
(I donno, maybe my tastes are too specific and I’m too hard to please. Lord knows I’ve had enough writing workshops, which are death on trying to read anything without a mental red pen in hand.)
So, when I see a capable, objective, coherent review that negatively criticizes a bestselling fantasy novel, I take note. (In part because far too much criticism comes from fictionalized fan-base infighting.) This would be Liz Bourke’s review for Michael Sullivan’s Theft of Swords; Sullivan was a big hit self-publishing his own work, and Theft collects his first two self-pub’d novels under the banner of an actual publishing house. By contrast, of the 45 Amazon reviews, only five are three-star or less.
At this point, whatever opinion I’d have had otherwise, the fanboy commentators have told me everything I need to know. What happens when someone has an opinion different from your own? Why, there must be something wrong with them. Let’s insult the reviewer, some kind of female historian intellectual who failed to objectively review even though she used objective data. (My personal favorite: taking quotes “out of context” makes any author look bad—of course, that’s exactly why I do it on my book review blog… not.) Two things strike me:
- Objectively – I do not think this word means what you think it means.
- To paraphrase Yahtzee: the objective for a critic is to critique, not put people’s balls in their mouth for a living.
This, as a whole, is my problem with the fantasy genre today. The review includes a number of “bad writing” examples which exceed anything I can pull out—”His father is a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions. (p. 174)” is killer.
But more than that, my problem is with the fans; not just the stupidity in the comments section, but the fact that this is a bestseller. People continue to buy, defend, and propagate bad high/epic/fantasy works. It feels like the specific elements, the aesthetics and world-building and story arc, are promoted at the cost of quality and originality—in other words, popularity isn’t based on the novel’s merits but by its degree of catering to the genre’s tropes. That can’t be good for the genre.
To subvert this old article, which I more or less agree with: familiarity is what’s wanted, but only that which is familiar within the fantasy genre. And people wonder why fantasy is often so denigrated.
Needing some light reading, I picked up another Planet Stories book when I saw it in the book store—you’d be surprised how quick these leave Barnes & Noble, and how few of them are stocked. This one happened to be Piers Anthony’s Steppe, a historical fiction turned space opera, which sounded fairly interesting from its back cover blurb.
After falling into a cavern, the Eurasian barbarian chieftain Alp is sucked into a future world by people who want to use his knowledge to play The Game. This Game is an immersive roleplaying experience where uneducated future players take roles of historical figures, each hoping to lead their character to victory and glory. In the end, Alp escapes into the Game, hoping to use his extent knowledge to become victorious as he evades the police looking for him on Earth, and becomes enmeshed in the plots and politics of scoring and winning. There are several great battles, the forging of several tribes, and a love interest for poor lost Alp, all inside this great Game, where players ride spaceship “horses” and fire “arrows” of pure light.
Steppe is one of those interesting books which has a lot of bad elements balanced with a lot of good ones. The entire plot is incredibly relevant and creative for today’s society—the Game is a cross between a star-spanning mumorpuger and a reality TV show, with the players gauged on their performance by the number of stable viewers. The aspect of corporate espionage, the Game itself, and the Machine overlords are like a pre-Cyberpunk trifecta, all the elements of Cyberpunk well before they arrived. While the book’s primarily a fantasy with its historical homage, Alp becomes so enmeshed—addicted, even?—to the game, its proto-Cyberpunk aspects are quite notable. And, as a roleplayer and gamer, the idea of the Game is pretty awesome.
At the same time, there’s a number of major flaws with the book. I’ll ignore some of the more contrived plot points/macguffins and the confusing time terminology of the Game world (one Year in the Game is equal to a day of real time, while a Day is a couple of real time minutes, and Anthony stops capitalizing and therefore distinguishing between them somewhere in the middle of the book). The major problem with the book is its long history-lesson stages. Vast sections of the book are pure exposition, with no action, as Alp either watches or leads a cartoon effigy of ancient peoples as they fight and conquer other cartoon figures representing other groups of ancient peoples. While an interesting concept, these sections were so damnably slow and droll that I ended up skipping most of them; I may not have known the history, but I don’t necessarily need to know it. Each expository chapter was akin to pulling teeth. It was like Anthony really wanted to write two books, a novel about a technologically advanced world-game and a textbook of Dark Age barbarian tribes, and ended up with this.
I should note that Planet Stories is becoming much more like the original pulp magazine of the same name—the splash page and cover are very magazine like, the book features internal illustrations and a two-column layout, and it’s increased in size to a proper digest format. The quality of the book just feels better as the covers are less rigid, and from start to finish the layout and text are evocative of a step into the past. It even features a retro-styled ad for Planet Stories subscriptions. Definitely a step in the right direction.
In the end, I found myself praising the complex originality of the plot and ideas, while despising the sections of heavy expository writing. At any point where Alp turns on the viewer (TV) to watch the cartoon factions fight each other, turning from giants to dwarves, I started tuning out. The second half of the book is particularly low on dialogue or interaction, all being done through authorial exposition in text-block format. Still, Steppe is a decent read, hooking you at its best points as much as it drives you away with its worst. It’s mediocrity at its best, a great idea with rough execution, and while I can’t say I’ll read it again it provided several nights worth of entertainment.