Ugly but Beautiful
I saw John Carter of Mars today – three generations of men sitting in an imax theatre together, 3-D glasses on, my son between my father and me, his fingers in his ears (the sound was loud, loud, loud).
It is hard not to be disappointed about movies based on books that you love and I love the John Carter books in the way only a 13-year-old boy can. So, was I disappointed? No. Was it what I expected? Yes and no. What it fun? Yes, definitely a big yes.
The most surprising thing for me was the humanity I found in the main character, John Carter. ERB’s hero is more super hero – man of no age – always 40 – with little known past except for the civil war. This John Carter has a history of loss that surprised me in its authenticity. It made him different from my memory of him and yet in some ways better – more human.
The frame of the movie that so many critics complained about as incomprehensible I found to be well done. The screenwriter’s combined the beginnings of the first and second books – wonderful openings, both, and created something that worked as a frame. It was atmospheric and felt like the books in tone even if it was not exact in detail. The world building was wonderful, from the clothes (what there was) and flowing capes, to the body henna tattoos, to the design of the cities and airships. It all thundered and whispered and muscled its way across the screen, raising martian dusk in its wake.
My three favorite images from the film were the following:
1. Waking up on Barsoom. The desert and the silence and vastness was captured beautifully from the Arizona desert to the dry ocean bottoms of Mars. That was a cool moment and made me think, yes, these film-makers got it right.
2. The image of John Carter leaping into the center of a chasing green martian horde and fighting against all of them until he is buried by their numbers. This was an image right out of the Frazetta line drawings. This scene was intercut with flashback’s to John Carter’s past on earth and surprised me in its power.
3. Every moment a green martian was on the screen. They were too thin and wiry but grew on me as I forgot quickly they were CGI and saw them as real in a matter of moments. The facial expressions especially were so real.
These three things and the frame made the whole movie for me. There was sword fighting, airships, CGI to make my eyes pop. But there was also a good story – a love story – that survived the meshing of books in the screenplay. ERB was, if anything, a romantic at heart with princesses always being stolen away from their loves and heroes always following after them. His princesses were also tough, wielding weapons as ferociously as their mates. John Carter, the movie, got this right too. Dejah Thoris was perfect.
What was best, though, was having my son and my father with me, sharing smiles and losing ourselves in Barsoom only to be brought back to earth and the familiar presence of my father and my son. My son gave it thumbs up. So did my dad. It leaves me to of only one thing more – I hope there’ll be a John Carter II.