Wild Tales of Wonder — John Carter

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.

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NR: Write This Way If You Want To Live

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I keep chiming in on science fiction topics.  Go figure.  Today it’s the future of the ‘Terminator’ series, which suffered from not one, but two mediocre revival attempts.  Or so I hear, as I have not seen ‘Terminator 3’.  In any case, McG’s ‘Terminator: Salvation’ didn’t go over too well, and now Universal is batting even more revitalization ideas about the field.  SlashFilm has a few words to say about the situation.  My two cents follow below the poster.

‘Terminator’ is a B-movie, a synthesis of slasher flicks, apocalyptic paranoia and very large firearms.  It revolves around a simple mythology, the endless conflict between humanity’s messianic defender and the ghosts in an army of machines, a war that spills out into logic-defying time travel.   It’s the worst case scenario of the Computer Age as conceived circa 1984.   Every subsequent installment revisits these themes and, rather than manipulating them into new, terrifying shapes, allows them to stagnate.   By ‘Terminator 2’, James Cameron’s final entry, it was obvious that the concept couldn’t go any further in its present form, so Cameron intended to let it go.   The film made a lot of money, however, so those blessed with the franchise rights were determined to keep it alive.   The next two sequels, separated by margins of 12 and then 6 years later, respectively, undid Cameron’s imposition of finality and then undid themselves.  What was necessarily convoluted has become hopelessly confused.

‘Terminator: Salvation’, though, was on the right track.  It brought us into the glimpsed post-apocalyptic war.  It did not deliver on the suspense implicit in the scenario, however, proving largely toothless and shifting the focus from messianic John Connor to a previously unknown character.  When we should have experienced the horrific urgency of Connor’s war, instead we visited yet another illogical time travel plot.

So, should ‘Terminator’ be left to rot?  I don’t think so.  All stories are reinventions.  I don’t find it necessary to complain about sequels or reboots in themselves, only to deliver justified criticisms when they go typically wrong.  There’s no reason a crack team of filmmakers can’t rightfully reinvent ‘Terminator’ to channel the original’s suspense and push the story in an unprecedented direction.  ‘Terminator’ can live again, but it must become unpredictable, passionate and adult.  It should be dangerous.

MMM: Mansell’s Moon, Avatar Piano, Morricone’s Harmonica

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Our customary three today lean on the meditative side.

Clint Mansell’s score for ‘Moon’ is suitably futuristic, haunting, and introspective.  A great companion to a story about lunar monasticism.

Among the many disappointments I experienced with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ was James Horner’s score.  Now, the man can write music, there’s no doubt of that.  The problem is that musically as well as narratively, ‘Avatar’ is mostly unoriginal and unsatisfying.  However, the main theme is actually pretty good… in instrumental. On piano, the melody doesn’t get lost as easily as it does in the film’s actual score.

Ennio Morricone is a titan among giants, and his music for Sergio Leone’s underrated ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ stands out with the best of his work.  This string of three pieces, from the film’s sublime climax, is equal parts meditative, mournful, and terrifying.

NR: Meet Me On Holodeck 3

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Today, piggy-backing off Collider’s report, I’m talking about 3D‘s evolution.  Thanks chiefly to James Cameron, nearly every major Hollywood player has bet it all on 3D.  I’ve been down on the technology in the past, as I prefer classic cinematography, but it is quite seductive.  Its justifies its existence by excellence and its potential to evolve into a daughter medium. Now, due to such innovators as Apple and Nintendo, the technology is outgrowing the need for uncomfortable, dimming glasses. Heck, in twenty years, my kids might be asking me for a holodeck without safeties.

Okay, so that’s unlikely for several reasons, but it’s clear the virtual world is outgrowing its bounds and establishing a beachhead in reality. We won’t dodge Agent Smith in The Matrix, we’ll be dodging him in the suburbs.

Okay, so that’s highly unlikely, too, but tongue-in-cheek exaggeration aside, in a world economy fueled by ever-accelerating demand, 3D tech is sure to develop into a new brand of escapist virtuality easily distinguishable from cinema. Traditional films may find themselves in the place still photography is now to motion pictures; not disregarded by any means, but perhaps playing a semi-ancillary role to the “highest” medium, whatever we call 3D then. Obvious, this new virtuality effects video games as well. Just as older, simpler forms of gaming remain popular as increasingly complex systems grow, it’s likely that 2D gaming will survive, but in my mind’s eye, the effects on the gaming industry will be far more profound.

Whatever the case, it’s not necessary for film lovers to bemoan the inevitable rise of 3D, but it’s probably a good idea to catch up on William Gibson and Philip K. Dick novels, for when things get weird.

Classic Review: Aliens

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  ‘Alien’ is a popular film that I have issues with, ‘Aliens’ is a popular film that I have no issues with.

Review:  I disliked ‘Alien’ because, despite great design and an interesting story, it was ultimately underwhelming.  It was a box office hit, though, and in 1986 20th Century Fox released a sequel, directed by then-newcomer James Cameron.  Cameron had already proven his worth on the 1984 hit ‘The Terminator’, a surprisingly powerful film that paired heart and depth with adrenaline fueled action.   Cameron would use this same approach to ‘Aliens’, and so it fixes everything wrong with the original ‘Alien’, salvaging and improving the sense of atmosphere, isolation, and terror that people enjoyed from it.  The result is one of the best action, science fiction, and horror movies ever made.

Though this is a three-genre movie, Cameron thankfully avoided the clichés and the tropes of each.   Unlike most space pictures, the future presented here isn’t particularly happy or hopeful.   It has neither the mysticism of ‘Star Wars’ nor the optimism of ‘Star Trek’.   Rather, it goes for that gritty ‘Blade Runner’ feel.  The world is still corporate and capitalist, we still have soldiers and fight wars, and space seems cold and ugly.  It’s a fresher, albeit darker, take on our view of outer space.

Unlike many action films (and, in my opinion, the first ‘Alien’), the characters in ‘Aliens’ are not two-dimensional or stock.  Ellen Ripley, the central character, is one of the best and most complex heroines of recent years.  She is strong, formidable, brave, fierce, and mother-like at the same time.  Most importantly, she seems human and, therefore, relatable.  The intimacy of her character is what draws us into the story and makes it compelling.  The other characters in the film are just as fleshed out, and so it is becomes easier to care about them and feel fear for them.

This does wonders for the sense of horror and terror in the film, as does its pacing and design.  Where as ‘Alien’ was very slow and, at times, even boring, ‘Aliens’ makes effective use of suspense.  People wander into rooms where we know great monsters are hiding, but Cameron allows for time to pass, and thus, for tension to build up before an attack or chase is on.  He doesn’t go for low blow shock-value, such as sudden kills from creatures out-of-nowhere, but rather for legitimate, well-timed terror.

Cameron and co also out-did themselves when it came to design on this picture.  They take the atmosphere from the original film and greatly expound upon it.  The aliens’ look is wonderfully frightening, especially the Alien Queen; the sets are intricate; and the models used are so detailed that it’s impossible to recognize them as such.  Despite being nearly 25 years old, modern CGI would not improve the look or believability of the effects, it’s that good.  James Horner also delivers an electrifying score that has proven so popular that it is still used in movie-trailers to this day.

The filmmakers really pulled out all the stops on ‘Aliens’.  It is an intelligent, suspenseful, and very enjoyable film.  It is the best of the ‘Alien’ franchise as well as a high point in Cameron’s career.  For a well-made and involving picture, check this one out.

James Cameron’s Avatar

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An amazingly well-done movie that suffers from a failure to take Socrates’ advice.

Review: I had previously written a somewhat negative review of this film after seeing it in 3D IMAX along with a sizable crowd. I did enjoy it, however. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare it to similar blockbusters and breakthroughs in filmmaking technique, as well as seeing it for the second time on a much smaller screen, I’ve come to a more complete and fairer conclusion. I’m still disappointed with it, but it’s not the two-star movie which I had initially recognized.  This is a remarkable work of art, but it could have been so much more.

‘Avatar’ is about the collision of two philosophies of life.  One, represented by the humans’ mining operation on Pandora, is the use of natural resources to feed an artificial, distant and mechanical kind of living, since Earth’s organic resources have apparently been wiped out (though it would have been more effective if they had shown us this wasted Earth).  The other, represented by the typically idyllic but sometimes savage and irrational Na’Vi aliens, is the integration of all forms of life into a kind of harmony guided by a superior, personal lifeform.

The story reveals very little faith in humanity, in direct contrast to Cameron’s previous ‘Terminator’ films, which presented the conclusion that humanity’s self-destructive tendencies were nevertheless canceled out by their potential for selflessness. The Na’Vi, to my disappointment, are not truly alien.  There is no study of ‘the Other’, which is unfortunate, as it is a way of encountering God.  Instead, the Na’Vi are superhuman.  They’re everything Cameron apparently wants us to be.  Athletic, beautiful, generally altruistic, feminine, but also in touch with a fierce animal side.  It’s a strange contradiction with Cameron’s brilliantly creative mind, since the Na’Vi are, quite simply, not ambitious.  They don’t show an appreciation for the idea of social evolution.  Cameron praises their refusal of the humans’ offers of technology, medicine, and education, yet these are all things that Cameron has personally invested himself and his resources in for the betterment of humanity. There is no betterment of the Na’Vi, only a keeping of the status quo, simple maintenance.  Ironically, this is kind of like a machine.  Eywa, the feminine deity of the Na’Vi religion, is a giant bio-mechanism in the form of a planet which shows admirable personality but not the desire for growth.  Machines, as of yet, don’t consciously reach out with curiosity to become better machines.  We do.  In doing so, we often resist control.  Eywa appears benevolent, but unlike a good human mother (like, say, Sarah Connor), ‘she’ merely keeps the cycle going, and there is no release of the Na’Vi into an independent adulthood.  It’s a nice, even beautiful cycle, but just like doing a Queen’s laundry in the Louvre, it’s going to become tedious eventually.

This is part of the inherent flaw of religions based solely on a deity’s will and/or a cyclical universe.  In Calvinist Christianity, since God has complete control over literally everything, there is no sanctioned stoking of independent desire and therefore, no social evolution, no betterment of humanity.  The best that Calvinism can ultimately offer is a cyclical heaven in which persons act like programs to fulfill a function.  In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universe is a cycle that repeats indefinitely, and the best escape offered in either, to my knowledge, is annihilation.

For all of James Cameron & Co’s amazing designs and well-told story beats, there is essentially no consideration of the complexities inherent in the opposing philosophies of the film.  The human bad guys are flat and unsympathetic.  The Na’Vi have a couple shades of complexity, but none of their flaws hamper them or are really considered flaws by the protagonist.  It’s true that ‘Avatar’ heavily relies on the concepts of the Noble Savage and nods to imperialistic atrocities, and what’s worse, they are again not explored in any depth.  This continual failure throughout the film’s long runtime to really explore the issues smacks of propaganda.  Perhaps in a rush to tell a successful morally simplistic tale like the original ’77 ‘Star Wars’, Cameron made the critical mistake of which morals to simplify.  ‘Star Wars’ was the noble rogues versus the oppressive, fascist state, a story as old as and older than Robin Hood.  It’s been mulled over, examined, rethought, and is pretty much universally acknowledged as being morally sound.  ‘Avatar’ pits unrealistically evil humans versus unrealistically good and superhuman aliens, a story as old as and maybe older than the 2000s, and an unwelcome addition, in my book.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. In a similar way, the unexamined idea is not worth having.

For all my complaints, it’s obvious that ‘Avatar’ was a labor of love for James Cameron and his massive team of artists, and they did make a pretty above average movie.  In fact, they made a very good one.  It’s a full 4-star movie, but it’s terribly terrible philosophy.