Review: Film fans of my generation tend to gripe about the lack of quality genre fare these days. Where’s the heir to ‘Star Wars’? Can’t somebody make a film as innocent and tearjerking as ‘E.T.’? Whatever happened to weird and wild fantasy films such as ‘Legend’, ‘Conan the Barbarian’, ‘The Neverending Story’, and the ‘The Princess Bride’? Why did they stop making good movies?
The answer to all these questions, of course, is that my generation is blinded by nostalgia and cannot see the fantastic stuff that’s right in front of them. For the most part, if a movie comes close to the pure fun quotient of ’80s classics, it ends up oddly ignored, or worse, needlessly criticized. For example, J.J. Abrams’ ‘Super 8’, the heir apparent to ‘E.T.’, nailed the tone so precisely that it was largely rejected by geekdom as a suspicious attempt to cash-in on nostalgia. It’s happening again with Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton‘s first live action film, ‘John Carter’, which successfully adapts Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novel ‘A Princess of Mars‘ into a film as gleefully exciting as the original ‘Star Wars’. And so, ironically, the generation weaned on Lucas’ fantasy films refuses to embrace the very thing they want.
If Stanton made a major mistake in adapting ‘John Carter’, it’s in assuming that people actually buy into this stuff anymore. Not that you can blame him. One would think today’s audiences, who complain endlessly on the internet about Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers movies, would eat up a genuine film adventure if they had the chance. Of course, today’s audiences have shown their true feelings by rewarding the likes of ‘Transformers’ with billion dollars grosses, so it should come as no surprise to Stanton if ‘John Carter’ fails to make bank.
Which isn’t to say that today’s audiences can’t reward a great movie when it arrives. Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception’ deserve all the attention they get. So does the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise. But note that even ‘Harry Potter’, which got its start overflowing with childlike wonder, became steadily darker and grittier — and so the box office grosses got higher. Cynicism, violence, tragedy, and brooding seem to resonate with audiences far more than ever. Critics often highlight the ’70s as the most “adult” cinematic decade, but I’d argue that the 2000s threaten its crown, since even the family fare, Pixar aside, tended to reward cynicism over wonder. You couldn’t have a ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ in the ’10s. People wouldn’t understand it.
Wonder, therefore, is the crucial ingredient of all those beloved childhood classics. Stanton and company get it. They infused ‘John Carter’ with it, creating a vigorous, heedless, and beautiful film. It’s not always pure cinema, but then again neither was ‘Star Wars’, which is something people tend to forget. For my money, ‘John Carter’ has more wide-eyed wonder in a single scene than James Cameron’s derivative ‘Avatar’ had in its entirety.
Consider the hero’s arrival on Mars, or, as the inhabitants call it, Barsoom. As he tries to walk, he accidentally catapults into the air repeatedly, comically landing in the dust over and over, until he realizes that he can jump hundreds of feet with a single step. In the course of two minutes, we’ve gone from shock, to frustration, to comedy, to revelation and wonder. In short, in but two minutes, we’re caught up in true adventure. This is what we’ve been missing — a flexible tone, rooted in character, exercised to exhilarate the audience. This continues through the entire film.
Sonically, the film has a very strong backbone, courtesy of Academy Award winning composer Michael Giacchino — who really is the new John Williams. The main theme conjures up ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, meshing perfectly with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp universe. In my view, a film composer’s responsibility is to richly evoke every unique character and scene, tying the emotional core to the viewer. Of course, this assumes that there’s an emotional core to tie, but Stanton doesn’t let Giacchino down.
Since its tone and its overall execution are spot-on, one would think people would respond as strongly as they once did to this kind of thing, but nay! Audiences are suspicious of it. ‘John Carter’ has far fewer script issues than the ‘Star Wars’ prequels and ‘Avatar’, but people readily bought into those films, only to trash them later. Truly worthy blockbusters are rare. More often than not, great films are ignored, only finding audiences long after the fact. Here’s a movie with a brisk, familiar narrative, elevated by strong characters, inventive action, stunning visuals and a stirring score. You know, like ‘Star Wars’. Yet ‘John Carter’ is poised to land soft in the U.S. box office. We don’t know what the hell we want. There’s still hope that ‘John Carter’ will hit the world box office hard, but regardless of how it does in theaters, I believe what we’re looking at here is a cult classic. Considering how many fantastic films have taken ten years or more to get the recognition they deserve — Keaton’s ‘The General’, Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’, to name a few — this bodes well for ‘John Carter’.
If you truly love the movies, if you thirst for adventure, then this wonderful film is for you. Don’t let the magic of cinema go unrewarded. See it now.