When I walked into the theater on March 9th, I was a skeptic. I’d seen some really weird looking previews that I filed into the “what the heck was that” drawer and tried to forget about, until a friend pointed me to a few facts that the trailer failed to mention. First, the movie was directed by Oscar-winner Andrew Stanton of Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Second, the script was co-written by Pulitzer Prize and Hugo Award-winner Michael Chabon of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Third, the film is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series which was the direct inspiration for Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Dune, Avatar, and basically every space opera trope of the 20th (and 21st) century.
As weird as it looked, I had to give it a chance.
When I walked out of the theater on March 9th, I was teetering on the verge of conversion. I felt a little like I’d just seen a new Star Wars movie, with a dash of Indiana Jones thrown in, but I was bothered by some perceived second act clunkiness, some thinly written scenes, some general goofiness, and, oddly enough, a nagging suspicion of its “almost-greatness.” My reaction was ambiguous, but I couldn’t shake the film. I couldn’t shake the feeling that for two hours, I’d been a kid again, peering wide-eyed into a fantastic world just beyond the world I could see.
I went home that night and lay in bed, kept awake by visions of four-armed Tharks, warrior/scientist princesses, tall ships that sail on light, and the possibility that somewhere there was a world where I could be more than the broken man I am. I started to wonder if anyone else was feeling the same way. After all, the film hadn’t gotten very good reviews and the media was calling it the biggest flop since Ishtar (ouch).
To my great relief, I discovered I’m not the only one. A quick perusal of Twitter and a few internet haunts quickly revealed that the film was connecting with audiences on a worldwide scale. In fact, it was the biggest movie in the world, despite the fact that it opened with split reviews and a baffling marketing campaign. It took in over $100 million in three days. But you wouldn’t know that from what you see reported in the media, because American audiences didn’t know what to make of it. The film cost a whopping $250 million to make and it was being cast as a box office flop. Sadly, those headlines seem to have colored many peoples’ perception of the movie, even if they haven’t seen it. All the bad press got my hackles up because 1) John Carter, while imperfect, is a far cry from a bad movie, 2) I’m tired of seeing great tales like Serenity fall by the wayside because of poor marketing or the failure of studios to understand their own films, and 3) I’m a sucker for an underdog—especially an underdog that looks, sounds, and feels like a good old-fashioned Star Wars movie.
But during the past week, I began to doubt myself. I must have enjoyed it primarily because I wanted to enjoy it. Right? I decided to find out. So this weekend I went to see it again, and this time I took my wife. I intended to watch with a critical eye, to put it under the microscope, so to speak. And because I trust my wife’s judgment of such things, I wanted to pay attention to how she was reacting. She knows a good story when she sees one, and she knows a bad story when it’s falling apart. So off we went. And this time I was paying attention.
The result is that I’m now a wanton convert. What I found on the second viewing is that, once more, it turned back the clock and made me a kid again. I recall very clearly how I used to watch Star Wars over and over and over again and each time I’d pick up on some nuance or some missed mention of a race, or place, or character, or motivation. And each of those small things hinted at the vast world lurking beyond the story on the screen. I remember picking out the scant mentions of Alderaan and wondering what those clues hinted at, thinking that if Leia was a princess then surely that implied a king. I remember studying every scene on the Death Star and trying to puzzle out the rank insignia on the uniforms. I remember listening to every mention of Jabba the Hutt and trying to work out what might happen to Han in Return of the Jedi. I loved how much detail there was and how it drew me into the story and the world and the people who lived there without ever trying too hard to explain itself.
And so this weekend there I sat, paying rapt attention to hints of Thark history, to the use of the word “Jeddak,” to the cultural significance surrounding the river Is. I found myself wondering what sort of life Dejah Thoris had led as a scientist in the moments just before she appeared on screen. I geeked out a little when I realized that the airships, sailing on sunlight, were positioning themselves to cast an opponent in shadow in order to deny maneuverability, just like real ships on the sea cast one another in a wind-shadow for the same effect.
Andrew Stanton has somehow managed to remember what George Lucas, Michael Bay, James Cameron, and countless others have forgotten in the last thirty years. He’s put into John Carter a sense of wonder, and pure-hearted adventure, and realness, not only of the world, but of the characters. They hint at things that the story brushes past, they imply relationships and histories that we can only guess at. Not everything is explained, and not because the story is incomplete, but because Stanton is trusting his audience to keep up. He doesn’t always succeed, but I’ll take that trust over the on-the-nose storytelling of Avatar or the Star Wars prequels any day.
I came away from that second viewing with the sense that I could watch it over and over again and each time catch something new, some fresh perspective, some previously unrecognized reference that can enlighten everything around it. And the ending left me breathless. It left me wanting nothing more than to be taken back to Barsoom as directly as possible. Och-ohem och-tay wyees—Barsoom (yep, I’m a nerd). And I was delighted to turn and find my wife with a similar grin on her face.
(I haven’t even mentioned the C. S. Lewis references!)
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so refreshed by a movie. It’s good, clean fun. No sexual overtones. No gore. No pointless, stylized, slo-mo violence. No bathroom humor. Just good adventurous storytelling. Princess Deja Thoris is the best female lead this kind of movie has seen since Leia, or Marion Ravenwood and, as anyone who’s read my books knows, I’m a sucker for a strong female heroine. It’s the kind of movie that makes kids want to grow up and be storytellers themselves, and I can think of no higher compliment than that.
Let me leaven some of this praise by saying that, yes, it does have its problems. No, it’s not a perfect movie. It drags a bit in the middle. It’s full of strange, hard-to-pronounce names that are hard to tell apart from one another. It’s goofy to a fault sometimes (which was endearing on a second view). It makes no scientific sense. But all those things are true of Star Wars too, remember? I dearly hope Andrew Stanton gets a chance to address those issues and give us a proper Empire Strikes Back.
But despite the great word of mouth and great viewer ratings, and despite the fact that it’s made nearly $180 million dollars in ten days (still the number one movie in the world–outside of the U.S.), it’s being labeled a flop and it’s not getting nearly the attention it deserves by an entire generation of young boys and girls. We constantly rail against the Hollywood machine for churning out the same old sequels and tired action movies and morally bankrupt comedies, and yet here we’re presented with something that’s potentially timeless, and by virtue of dollars spent, Disney is being told that no, this isn’t what the public wants. What the public wants is Transformers IV, and Twilight, and Saw XI. That makes me sad.
If I had kids of my own, we’d be off to Mars—-no, Barsoom—-this weekend. And I’d spend half the movie watching them watching it, just to remind myself how great it was to be a child lost in an adventure. Thank you, Andrew Stanton, for making me young again, even if only for two exhilarating hours.
Here’s a fan-made trailer that does a much better job of encapsulating the movie than any of the official trailers did.