For a B-movie, I give it an A+. JOHN CARTER, the SF epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s iconic Mars adventure books, debuted this weekend and proved itself to be an entertaining romp. What’s not to like about a ripped, scowling hero, a beautiful, a sword-wielding heroine (gotta like those!), cool, four-armed Martians, even cooler, solar-powered flying ships and lots of arid landscape?
I didn’t lay out the extra cash to see it in 3D, but the effects were impressive enough without the glasses. Okay, maybe they over-did the ability of a human from higher-gravity Earth to jump great distances on lower-gravity Mars, but the scene in which John Carter discovers his “superpower” was amusing. (A bigger quibble was that all the humanoids we encounter on Mars look just like Carter in musculature. Wouldn’t they be kinda skinny and underdeveloped by comparison?)
“Friday Night Lights” alum Taylor Kitsch acquitted himself well enough as the hero, showing both the physicality and the wounded nature of the original character from Burroughs’s books. Unfortunately Lynn Collins provides little depth to her character, Dejah Thoris, though the storyline gives her the opportunity to be princess, regent of the Academy of Sciences (where she is on the verge of making an historic discovery), fierce fighter and tender lover.
Veteran actors Willem Dafoe (unidentifiable as Martian/Thark Tars Tarkis), Ciaran Hinds and Mark Strong put their shoulders to the wheel to move along a complicated plot having to do with a thousand-year-old civil war on Mars, manipulated by immortals who feed off all that negative energy. The problem here is that the “Red Men of Mars” are divided into two factions and we, the poor audience, can’t tell them apart! We’re supposed to be helped by the fact that one faction flies a red flag and one flies a blue one. (Right.) But the producers have even gone so far as to cast two actors in key roles—Dominic West as Sab Than (bad) and James Purefoy as Kantos Kan (good)—who may not look anything alike in real life, but when they get made up as Red Men of Mars could be brothers. I spent half the movie going, “Wait, is that the bad guy?”
Other mistakes were made in the storytelling that made it difficult to love this movie. Director Andrew Stanton is an Academy Award winner—for the animated features TOY STORY and WALL-E. This was his first live feature. Perhaps that was the reason he felt it necessary to waste time in useless backstory at the front end of the film when that time could have been used to develop Carter’s relationships (with Dejah, with the Tharks) in the middle of the film. Granted, it was only a few minutes, but it could have made a huge difference in our understanding of what the heck was happening on Mars.
Of course, the biggest problem of all is that this film cost the Disney folks millions to make and was touted as the next STAR WARS. Some industry analysts estimate JOHN CARTER will have to generate $600 million in global ticket sales just to break even. The response to the film has been modest at best--$30 million in domestic box office the first weekend; $70 million worldwide. That puts this movie well on the way to joining colossal failures like ISHTAR and HEAVEN’S GATE.
As for becoming the next STAR WARS, what the filmmakers neglected to take into account was that Burroughs’s themes of alien manipulation, environmental degradation, bloodlust and greed have been plundered by hundreds of SF books and films over the years. They can no longer be the “next thing”. George Lucas himself has admitted to using Burroughs as inspiration, as have dozens of writers and filmmakers before him. If Stanton had seen this as a sort of retro revisioning, he might have done better. Then we could have had a good time munching our popcorn and cheering the hero without worrying about all the hype.
Contest Fever Strikes Again
A few days after saying I was retiring my current completed manuscripts from contest competition I came across a contest I couldn’t resist: the 29th Annual (!) Orange Rose Contest for Unpublished Writers from the Orange County Chapter of RWA. This one is unusual in that the top ten scorers compete for the final judges’ approval, regardless of category. First-round judges are all published writers, and final winners in the top four places all receive cash prizes. Final judges are top-flight agents and editors at major houses, and past contests have generated several requests for full manuscripts per contest. And you get the first few chapters plus synopsis to show off (total of 50 pages).
Sounds exciting, right? Entries are limited to the first 150 manuscripts, so better get in there! (I’m entering both of my manuscripts.) For more information, go to: http:\\www.occrwa.org .
In the meantime, I’m preparing to sit in the judge’s seat for my Virginia chapter’s Fool for Love contest. If you’ve never switched roles before, I recommend it. Donning the judge’s “robes” gives you a whole new way of looking at the contest process and improves your own work. (It also helps when those bad scores come in—you can always say,”That person doesn’t know any more than I do!”)