Review: John Carter (2012)

John Carter posterJohn Carter is one of those films that you really, really want to like more than you actually do. For me, it should have been a slam dunk. It ticks so many of my boxes:  Retro-flavoured sci-fi? Check. Classic pulp literature source? Check. Beautiful alien vistas? Check. Supporting cast made up of reliable British stalwarts? Check. So why doesn’t the film click in the way that it should?

The blame must lie squarely with the director. Andrew Stanton has three outstanding directorial credits to his name, and they are all Pixar animations: A Bug’s LifeFinding Nemo and WALL·E.  As good as they are (and they are very very good), it is still an enormous leap from animation to live-action – doubly so when you’re working on a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Funnily enough, one of Stanton’s colleagues made exactly the same leap last December: Brad Bird (the genius behind RatatouilleThe Incredibles and the joyous The Iron Giant) branched out with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and delivered the most entertaining entry in the franchise yet. So evidently it is possible to make the transition.

But Stanton fumbles the narrative right from the off. Instead of easing the audience in to a world full of strange names and warring factions, we are dropped practically head first in to a mid-air battle. It’s pretty difficult to get a handle on who’s who and why they are fighting, and it makes very little sense. Then we’re suddenly catapulted to 1880s New York, where a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) has been summoned by his wealthy and eccentric uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) – it’s there he learns of Carter’s Martian escapades, and how he came to travel to the red planet in the first place.

I can see why Stanton wanted to cut through mountains of exposition in order to tease the action, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s jarring and disorientating, and feels like a desperate ploy. From New York it’s back to Mars and those strange names and factions, although the scenes where Carter adjusts to a world where he is able to leap tall buildings are quite fun.

I don’t buy the argument going round critical circles that the source material has been plundered and ripped off so many times down the years that there’s nothing left of interest to today’s audiences. True, the original Burroughs stories date back to 1912, and have heavily influenced genre milestones like Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Avatar. Certain plot points and scenes heavily recall films like Stargate and last year’s Cowboys and Aliens. But with the right script, cast and direction, anything is possible. There is plenty of potential on display in John Carter to justify the decision to adapt the stories. The problem is the way they’ve been adapted.

The story has been pared down to a basic series of chases, from A to B to C, occasionally pausing for some action. There’s very little time spent on shading the characters, which obviously creates problems when you’re not sure who’s on who’s side and does nothing to win the audience over. Some humour would have helped, but there’s none to be found. The central romance between Carter and Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) feels a bit forced. A cute dog-type creature goes a little way to adding family appeal, but not much. In short, it falls in to the common blockbuster trap of all spectacle, no heart.

The second big problem is the casting of the lead character. For Carter they needed someone who had charisma, panache, a bit of swagger. They needed a Harrison Ford; they got a Mark Hamill. No offence to Kitsch, I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke, but he’s a plank of wood as Carter. He looks the part but fails to convince as a man able to inspire an uprising; he barely seems credible as a disillusioned Confederate soldier.

The film is not a complete loss; far from it. The entire production is a thing of beauty – the photography, sets, costumes and special effects all look terrific. Beyond Kitsch, the rest of the cast more than hold their own. It’s always fun to see a good supporting cast in a sci-fi yarn like this; they give depth to the spectacle and help anchor the story, and actors like Mark Strong and James Purefoy do just that (though Dominic West simply stays in Ham mode). And the copious action on display is fun, if never thrilling.

John Carter is no flop. It’s not as good as it might have been and it has problems, but it’s still an entertaining two hours. It’s just a shame that, with so much going for it, it only emerges as OK.

[xrr rating=3/5]

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (1999/2012)

The Phantom Menace posterIs it time to rehabilitate the vilified prequel?

There are surely few films as loathed as that of George Lucas’ first prequel to his original blockbusting Star Wars trilogy. The seismic disappointment felt among casual and hardcore fans was both immediate and sustained. Even now the name Jar Jar Binks induces a visible shudder in the average bloke on the street.

In any other franchise this would have been a fatal blow, with plans for future instalments thrown in to doubt (or even the bin). But this was STAR WARS. This is no mere franchise; it’s a way of life. Thus, bad word of mouth failed to damage its box office returns, or impede the production of episodes II and III. George Lucas had total artistic and financial independence, such that he was impervious to complaints from fans and critics alike. Indeed, the term ‘critic-proof’ could have been invented to describe The Phantom Menace.

It’s been over more than ten years now since that heady summer of 1999; plenty of time for water to pass under the proverbial bridge. How does it stand up today? Never one to miss a trick, Lucas has given us all the opportunity to reappraise the film by re-releasing it in 3D (not that anyone demanded the opportunity, but still). Plans exist for the entire series to be converted and re-released on a yearly basis.

Let’s deal with the 3D first: it’s ok, but hardly essential. It doesn’t call attention to itself, and it’s certainly not as offensive to the eyes as that Clash of the Titans remake was a couple of years back. Some images even work quite well, but at no point does the film ever feel like it benefits from the extra dimension. A waste of time then? On the whole, yes.

As the film began I braced myself for two and a bit hours of poorly written dialogue, wooden acting and the occasional flicker of exciting action. The opening text crawl explaining the premise did nothing to counter these expectations: talk of trade routes and tax disputes seems totally out of place, entirely contrary to the fairy tale spirit of the original 1977 film.

The other flaws remain glaring: Lucas’ howlingly poor dialogue still clangs to the floor, Jar Jar still grates on the nerves, and the performances are nothing more than perfunctory. The fact that the story hinges on an 8 year old brat is also a problem; none of the characters are as engaging as those from the original trilogy. But hold on to your hat: after a dull first ten minutes or so, the film eventually settles down in to a modestly enjoyable adventure.

Even on its initial release, the pod racing sequence and the lightsabre battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) were widely acknowledged as the highlights, and this still holds true. The pod race certainly benefits from being seen on the big screen, and the fight with Darth Maul (a sadly underused villain, killed off far too quickly) is one of the most memorable sequences of the entire series. The acting remains stiff, but not fatally so. Liam Neeson anchors the film with his now familiar performance as Mentor (see also Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven). I even got used to Jar Jar after a while.

The eye-popping production design is the film’s other chief pleasure. The spaceships are sleek and elegant, while the planets of Naboo and Coruscant are opulant, almost mythical in their beauty. At least here it does nicely pave the way for the more industrial look of the classic trilogy, after the Republic has given way to the Empire. The climactic battle for Naboo shows off its various locations to good effect, and even injects some excitement on to the screen.

And of course, if all else fails, there’s always John Williams’ superb score to enjoy; the composer surpassed himself with the rich array of themes and sounds he used to illustrate the various characters and locations. It’s easily the best of his prequel soundtracks, and a great score period.

So is it time to rehabilitate The Phantom Menace? It’s certainly time to ditch the occasionally hysterical criticism it often receives. There are far worse films out there than Episode I. Yes, it’s flawed, it’s clunky, but it still has a genuine sense of adventure and scale that other would-be blockbusters would kill for. What it lacks is the captivating fun of its predecessors – which, for something bearing the Star Wars name, is more or less unforgivable.

[xrr rating=3/5]

The Fly (1986)

The Fly (1986) posterOf all the Hollywood studio logos that appear before a film begins, my favourite is Twentieth Century Fox. Not because they deliver a higher or more consistent level of quality than anyone else (certainly not), but because they have given the world some of the all time greatest science fiction films and franchises. The Day The Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes, Star WarsAlien… all are perfect in their own way, and nestle near the top of my favourites list.

In the mid-1980s Fox hit the jackpot. Over the course of 12 months, between the summers of ’86 and ’87, three superior works of sci-fi/horror were unleashed: Aliens, Predator and The Fly. The first of these, Aliens, was of course a sequel to possibly the greatest sci-fi horror of all time, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and somehow emerged as the equal of its predecessor. Released a year later, Predator was an attempt to capitalise on the success of Aliens by melding the same soldiers vs. ETs plot with Schwarzenegger’s particular brand of unshackled violence. Whilst not quite scaling the heights achieved by Aliens, it was nonetheless a gory and highly enjoyable action suspenser, and gave cinema a memorable new monster (as well as a whole host of new Arnie quotes).

Sandwiched between these two was David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. It too can be labelled as a sci-fi horror, yet it is a vastly different beast from its stablemates; instead of expertly choreographed shoot-em-up splatter, Cronenberg makes his monster movie a full-on romantic tragedy. One should perhaps have expected this from a director as unconventional as Cronenberg. He throws out everything but the core idea of the original 1958 film: that of a scientist who develops a teleportation machine, which he tests on himself and, inadvertently, a common house-fly at the same time, with pretty disastrous consequences. Gone is the over-ripe melodrama and nonsensical science (just how did that fly’s head manage to grow so many times larger? And why did it still seem to house the scientist’s brain inside it?). Gone too is the lush widescreen photography.

In their place is a beautifully tender relationship between scientist  Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never better) and journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis, equally good) who he persuades to document his experiments; science that is at least far more credible, if no less fictional; and a production design that is immeasurably more atmospheric and appropriately downbeat.

What I love most is the way it starts off in such a romantic and funny vein. You are instantly won over by the nerdy Goldblum and his hapless attempts to woo the sophisticated Davis (“…cheeseburger!”). It’s totally unexpected, and beautifully sets up the relationship that slowly and painfully implodes during the course of the film. The joy of new-found love has never felt so tangible in a genre film of this kind. Goldblum and Davis were dating at the time of the film’s production, and the wonderfully erotic moment when Veronica removes one of her stockings so that Seth can prove his invention works underlines their very real chemistry.

Gradually however this joy gives way to jealousy and resentment, before changing to pity, fear and finally outright terror. It’s an emotional transformation that mirrors the physical one undertaken by Brundle himself after he tests his own teleporter in a drunken fit of jealousy. Initially he seems fine; better than fine in fact, as he bubbles over with more energy and life than he has ever known. Then his body slowly begins to change, deteriorating as his hideous evolution begins. If it’s body horror you wanted, then you’ve  come to the right film. Who can forget the infamous ‘Brundle Museum of Natural History’? And then there’s the maggot dream sequence, which gives the Alien‘s birth scene a run for its money in the squirming stakes.

But the real horror is etched on Veronica’s face, as she witnesses the slow and wretched death of the man she loves. Parallels have frequently been drawn between Brundle’s condition and the outbreak of AIDS that was taking off around the time of the film’s release, but I don’t think it was deliberate; it could be any disease, any condition. The pain of witnessing a loved one physically waste away is an all too frequent occurrence in this world, and all the more painful when it happens to someone in their youth. Cronenberg’s fascination with the body and mind has never been as moving as it is here.

The classical story structure – a doomed romantic triangle created by the intrusion of Veronica’s boss and unwanted ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz), with hardly any other characters to speak of – lends the film a timeless quality, and over 25 years later it doesn’t feel dated at all, bar the occasional special effects shot. Indeed the film feels quite operatic, especially when Howard Shore’s magnificently dramatic score kicks in (no wonder then that Cronenberg and Shore reworked the film in to an actual opera in 2008). The gore and goo still horrifies and repulses, and the devastating ending still packs a hell of a punch. Not bad for a remake of a 50s B-movie, itself adapted from a short story first published in the pages of Playboy magazine. It’s easy to overlook this masterpiece – don’t.

[xrr rating=5/5]

Revisiting the Rings

This past Monday, finding myself with a day off work and little else to do, I treated myself to a ‘movie marathon’: watching a few films in one go just so you can say you’ve done it. This is something only true geeks bother to do, and should never be boasted about amongst unfamiliar acquaintances or relations. I somehow managed to rope my brother in and, armed with pizzas, Pringles and copious cups of tea, we sat down to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies, neither of us having seen them for a couple of years or so. Although I didn’t really get anything new from the experience (besides noticing for the first time that the horse that rescues Aragorn from the river in The Two Towers is the same one he freed earlier on), it brought home to me once again just how wonderful these films are, working as great pieces of cinema as well as faithful adaptations of a classic literary epic. Six years on from the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, nothing suggests these magnificent films are going to date any time soon or are likely to be supplanted from their reign as the greatest fantasy movies ever made.

One could nit-pick of course, about things like omissions from the book, or the restructuring of certain sequences, or even casting decisions. But taken as a whole, I would happily argue that these films are about as close to perfect as they can get. I have no problem with any of the cast, all of whom more than do justice to their parts, and the tinkering with the structure seems valid enough to me and certainly does nothing to diminish the story. Nor did I miss those segments omitted from the original text, like the Tom Bombadil episode. Despite the odd tweak here and there, which was almost certainly necessary, I don’t think any argument could be made that these films were unfaithful in spirit to Tolkien’s work.

Beyond fidelity to the source material, what these films seem to have for me is an attitude, a real timeless quality that I believe will ensure they will be revisited for many years to come. At the time of their release, there was talk of them being ‘the Star Wars films of their generation’, and to a certain extent I think that was true. The release of each of the three films became an event, a treat to look forward to at Christmas time; especially once director Peter Jackson had knocked it out of the park with the first movie and it was safe to assume The Two Towers and The Return of the King would be of the same standard. They roped in every demographic to the multiplex in the same way that Star Wars did almost a quarter of a century earlier. They ooze class from every pore, be it the stunningly good cinematography, the magisterial score by Howard Shore (which he has since toured around the world), the wonderful cast (how could anyone else play Gandalf now besides Ian McKellan?), the jaw-dropping special effects courtesy of the now world-renowned WETA, the literate and faithful script from Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens and of course Jackson’s own direction, which never gets in the way but simply serves the story and visuals (and chucks in the occasional characteristic flourish).

Jackson thanked J.R.R. Tolkien in his Oscar acceptance speech in 2004, and obviously without that groundbreaking novel the film wouldn’t exist. But adapting such a book was no easy task and Jackson deserves all the credit he got when ROTK scooped 11 Oscars. Children and adults were instantly won over by the trilogy, reminding us all that there is no substitute for a brilliant story well told. I very much look forward to the day I can introduce my own children to Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring, perhaps one cold Sunday tea-time in December some years hence. I loathe the phrase ‘movie magic’, but perhaps here it is appropriate.