Part One of Two:

Lord of the Rings is my favourite film (cos I think of it as one loooooong film) of the past 30 years.  That, then, is the definition of a hard act to follow. 

With that in mind, I’ve watched the development of The Hobbit over the years with a mix of hope and trepidation.  I was distraught when Jackson said (effectively) that he couldn’t face making another.  Then I was mollified when Del Toro took over because, I thought, he’d keep it dark and extraordinary.  When he got tired of the delays and left I was genuinely concerned … Then, when Jackson said he would do it after all, I celebrated.  

But the delays continued … Studio and rights issues, union and political problems … A threat to shoot somewhere other than New Zealand (which we all now know is Middle Earth).  It looked like the film was cursed.  To be fair, all of this is not that unusual in large-scale movie making but, in this case, it all happened very publicly.

Thankfully, it was all well worth the wait.

"You feel there's something calling you ... You're wanting to return ... To where the misty mountains rise and friendly fires burn ..."
For me, watching The Hobbit is like returning home after a long time away … It feels comfortably familiar, yet things have changed noticeably.  I’ve seen it twice now, once in proper 2D and once in 3D gimmick-o-scope.  You probably already know my thoughts on 3D so I won’t revisit them but, suffice it to say, the only reason I inflicted 3D on myself was to see the 48 frames per second presentation.  This had been so controversial, I just had to make my own mind up and, given the controversy, this might be my last chance as there may never be another widely distributed film in so-called HFR (higher frame rate).

The 48 frames do make a significant difference to the viewing experience – akin to that of stepping-up from DVD to Blu-Ray – and it can be distracting, so I’m glad I watched the film in traditional 2D first, simply so I could concentrate on the story, the acting and the overall feel.

“I’m not the same Hobbit I once was” opines Ian Holm as old Bilbo, looking at a drawing of Martin Freeman as young Bilbo.  This starts things off with a nice nod and a wink to the audience.  It does cross my mind that I do hope we won’t get a belated ‘Special Edition’ of Fellowship, with the flashback of Ian Holm's Bilbo finding the ring replaced with Freeman's re-staging of the same scene.  I’m confident we won’t though because Jackson, after all, isn’t George Lucas.

"No wait, here it is in the small print: ' ... Reserves the right to suddenly turn two films into three without warning.'  Seems fairly watertight, chaps.  No series three of Sherlock just yet, then ..."
As he did with the opening moments of Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson gives us a flashback to a moment of historical significance which lays the foundations of the current dilemma.  In LOTR it was the defeat of Sauron and the failure to destroy The One Ring, here it is the loss of the city of Erebor to the marauding Fire Drake, Smaug.

Because Jackson is a tease, he gives us the Dragon’s spectacular attack and capturing of the city, without letting us get a good look at it, there’s a taloned foot here, the tip of a spiky tail there, the shape of a wing and, eventually, a close-up of an eyeball.  But the big reveal will, of course, be saved for a dramatically expedient moment in the next film.

He pulls the same trick, just as effectively, when Radogast’s tree-house is being besieged by giant spiders.  We see legs and shadows and a genuinely chilling shot of the furry-elbowed arachnids stalking away through the woodland foliage.  The full horror of them will be revealed next time.  Not sure how he’ll top Shelob from Return of the King, but we shall see.

Of course, the presence of these spiders, along with Radogast’s dire warnings about ‘The Necromancer’, are ingredients we should recognise … They are dramatic fore-shadowings … The seeds from which grow the dangers of LOTR.  When Gandalf’s wizard superior, Saruman, appears he is already equivocating over the danger posed by Mordor and we all know where that will lead in just sixty short (by Middle Earth standards) years.

Getting back to the loss of Erebor, it explains why, in Lord of the Rings, Gimli distrusts Legolas because Thranduil, the Elf King (and, not incidentally, Legolas’ father), refuses to get involved in the fight between Dwarf and Dragon and thusly earns the eternal enmity of the Dwarven folk.

And so the framing device ends with old Bilbo sitting quietly, on the eve of the party that launches The Lord of the Rings, reminiscing and blowing a smoke-ring which, as this films sub-title ‘An Unexpected Journey’ appears, is a reminder of another ring still, at that point, very much on Bilbo’s mind.

"To think I should have lived to be good morninged by Belladonna Took's son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!"
And so we are introduced to young Bilbo, sitting on the same bench sixty years earlier, smoking the same pipe weed, played now by Martin Freeman who immediately proffers his trademark perplexed look as his view of The Shire is blocked by a rather shambolic grey wizard.  Gandalf is exactly as I remember him from the Bag End scenes in LOTR which, in itself, is an impressive achievement given the twelve years that have passed since those scenes were filmed and these.

Soon after this, our new cast-members begin to arrive, initially in ones and twos, then in one heaving mass, we meet the thirteen Dwarves of the new fellowship.  I know that having thirteen Dwarves plus one Hobbit and one Wizard was a major headache for Jackson and co. because they simply didn’t know how to present so many new faces in a way that we, the poor beleaguered viewer could remember them all.  Well, frankly, I’ve seen the film twice and I still don’t know all their names nor have a grasp on all their personalities but that’s okay; this is, after all, the first part of the story.  We have many hours to get to know them before we’re done!

A (baker's) dozen Dwarves
The Dwarves are played by a cadre of (predominantly) Celtic thesps, led by Yorkshireman (and therefore, you might say, thinking woman’s Sean Bean) Richard Armitage.  He is Thorin Oakenshield, who was there at the fall of Erebor and, again, at the battle of Moria when it was overwhelmed by the Orcs who still lurk in its stygian depths when Gandalf returns there sixty years later.  Thorin and his kinsman, Balin (played by sagely Ken Stott) are the old guard, this film’s links to their culture’s noble past now fallen on hard times and, as such, they exemplify the dignity and restrained aggression that Aragorn brought to LOTR.

We see Thorin battle the Pale Orc, Azog, who will be our antagoniste du jour.  A feud burns between these two which will fuel the latter scenes of this film and will continue to burn, no doubt, in the next one.  Thorin’s grabbing of an uprooted tree-stump to use it as a shield (and thusly earning his moniker) is one of those mythic moments which makes my skin tingle with its authenticity.  This is exactly the kind of moment one finds in real myths.  We are also told that his father, King Thrain, who had hoarded all the gold in Erebor, had been driven mad by its loss and simply disappeared.  One imagines that he’ll be back subsequently, possibly in the final part of what will now be a three-part treatment of this story.

"Have I ever said: I love that eye-liner on you, it really makes your eyes sparkle?"
This, once again, gives us a thread to connect with LOTR as that story was entirely driven by the failure of kings and other leaders.  From Isildur’s initial failure to destroy the ring, to King Theoden’s torpor, Saruman’s greed and Steward Denethor’s mad jealousy, every leader in Middle Earth failed their people.  This, I feel, was a significant part of Tolkien’s message, reflecting on his own youth as a victim of the political incompetence which resulted in World War One.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, himself, no stranger to a bowl of Old Toby ...
Part Two of Two:

Tolkien himself, of course, vigorously denied any allegorical content in LOTR, in the Foreword to the revised edition, he states: “As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical … The crucial chapter, "The Shadow of the Past', is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster …”  Well, far be it from me to argue with the great man but the very nature of subtext is such that an author may not be personally aware of it, may not intend it and, certainly, may deny it.  Please note that he does take the trouble to include that all-important ‘in the intention of the author’ clause, so it seems he was conceding that it may be there, but not by his deliberate design.

After all, he was writing during the period when the country was sinking towards, then engaged in, then recovering from the second Great War of the generation.  During this time, from the rarefied halls of academe, he will have seen many of his students drawn to the flag and that surely must have stirred up memories of his own youth when he had fought in the first war.  As he continues in the Foreword: “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression … to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”.

In a time of war, he wrote about war … How can his circumstance not have influenced his mood, his creative decision-making and his conclusions?

Any similarities between Tolkien and Gandalf are not in the intention of the film-makers.
But The Hobbit, a children’s fable, is most decidedly not about war, neither in its text nor its subtext.  It is about introducing us to a fabulous world, from the point of view of an innocent, child-like in bearing and experience, but surprisingly bold in demeanour.  Bilbo has only the vaguest notion of the depth of history, politics and the vagaries of civilisation that have formed the world into which he steps.  Are any of us any different when we first venture forth?

And so the merry band set off on their heroes' journey and Jackson gets to unleash the gratuitous use of spectacular New Zealand landscape that gave LOTR such a particular look and, co-incidentally, did wonders for the New Zealand tourist trade.  These new Middle Earth vistas are every bit as beautiful as those with which I am now familiar.  Oh, good!

The world is lighter and more magical than we know it, with no Mordor to darken the horizon.  Radogast The Brown is deeply disturbed by the rot and mould he finds infesting his forest, the vanguard of Sauron’s regime.  The giant spiders he encounters are familiar to us, but completely unprecedented to him: “Where on this good Earth” he asks plaintively “did those foul creatures come from?”

Radogast is only the third wizard we have met (although, to be fair we’re only likely to meet three as Tolkien only invented five and didn’t trouble himself much with the other two ‘Blue’ wizards, the names of whom Gandalf can, pointedly, not remember).  He is played wonderfully by Sylvester McCoy who, essentially, plays himself.  Stuntman, mine-artist and all-round eccentric, McCoy has always been a natural entertainer.  In person he comes across as something of an overly-enthusiastic uncle, delightful for kids, embarrassing for adults and Radogast, with birds in his hair and his mugging, eye-rolling performance, is exactly like that.

The Seventh Doctor thinks being a Wizard is for the birds.  (Sorry).
As we are introduced to him, he is fighting an epic battle to save the life of a hedgehog.  But why not?  Having your protagonist be a member of the physically smallest, least adventurous race on earth clearly shows a willingness to acknowledge the value of every life – however seemingly insignificant.  Whilst Saruman disdains Radogast as a fool, Gandalf is himself not so foolish as to think bearing the demeanour of a fool necessarily makes one such.  As he later confides to Galadriel: “I have found it is the small things … The deeds of everyday folk that keeps evil at bay.” That, right there, is the overarching message of this whole series of films in a sentence.  God – if Middle Earth had any such thing – would be in the details!

It is an interesting point, I think, that McKellen and McCoy have worked together on stage as, respectively, Lear and Fool.  Their relationship is well established and deep and that comes across immediately here.  Finally, before Radogast disappears completely from the film (hopefully to return in the next one) he breaks out his quite wonderful sleigh, pulled by his team of Rhosgobel Rabbits.  Now that beats shanks’ pony as a way to traverse Middle Earth!

Bilbo is soon advised by Gandalf that true courage “ … is not about knowing when to take a life but when to spare one” which is, of course, why he spares Gollum.  Of course, one could argue that Frodo and, indeed, Gollum himself, might be better off with him put out of his misery … but he isn’t genuinely dangerous and I seriously doubt that Frodo and Sam would make it to Mordor without him.  So leaving him alive is investing in the future of Middle Earth and the ultimate defeat of Sauron by human (or, rather, Hobbitual) decency!  No?  Suit yourself.

I love the decency of the characters as demonstrated in the details:  Thorin waits for all of his men to escape down the chute to Rivendell that Gandalf has discovered, before heading down himself.  He, needless to add, is not a ruler who fails his subjects.  Later, when the dwarves are surrounded by full size horses with weapons-wielding Elves riding them, they form a defensive circle and instinctively pull the helpless Bilbo into the centre of it.  They may be intimidated and hopelessly out-classed, but they don’t let that imperil there instinctive sense of comradeship and decency.  He may only be a ‘Hobbit Burglar’, but he’s one of them and, as such, an equal.

Even Gandalf is not without his human foibles.  As the iridescent Galadriel bids him farewell and disappears … Gandalf is left alone and, just for a moment, distraught … So deeply smitten with her is he.

McKellen gives a very human performance as the ... Well, we don't know what he is but he's not human ... Gandalf, when he meets the film's one and only female performer - Shoe-horned in there simply because ...
Apparently some people have complained about the pace of this film, beginning, as it does, with well over half an hour of characters arriving, eating and doing not much before taking a leisurely stroll to, initially, Rivendell.  But, mayhap, the complainers have forgotten that that is precisely how Fellowship began, with time for the viewer to adjust to this new world and this panoply of bizarre new characters.  It’s possibly also worth mentioning that the film was originally intended to be the first half of the story, and has been re-worked so that it is now just the first third … That must have had some effect on the pacing of the movie.  Must have.  But when the trilogy is complete I am confident that the pace will seem perfectly appropriate.

Getting us to revisit familiar (and welcome) places like Rivendell, to show us fondly remembered characters like Elrond and Galadriel and the less-well-thought-of Saruman, is a short-hand way of helping us to identify with the familiar elements from the films we know, so to help us cope with the elements we don’t.  This isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, mind, as Jackson and Co. have achieved something quite different here, not least in the technical innovations of shooting so many special effects in 3D and at 48 frames per second.

Part Three of Two:

Particularly noticeable in these early scenes, but present throughout, is one of the key differences between this film and LOTR … The glow.  Many of the characters’ faces and, sometimes, the environments in which they walk, have a hazy shine about them as though they are glowing with inner magic.  I know that this is a product of post-production digital colour-grading and, initially, I found it quite distracting but then I settled into it because, after all, this film is set in an early, more innocent, less doom-laden world that LOTR.  In that world only The Shire is untouched by Sauron’s blight but, sixty years earlier, the whole world is going about its magical kingdom business, being a place of wonder and fantasy … So why wouldn’t things have an innocent, magical glow?

Hang on, have my eyes gone funny?  It's this bloody eye-liner, isn't it!
Whilst, as you probably know, I can’t see in 3D, I’m told the experience here is a very comfortable one, with none of the eye-strain that some people experience in normal 3D.  Of course, that means nothing to me because I’m just watching a flat film, no-matter how many dimensions they’ve made it in.  I mostly watched this film oblivious to the dimension I was missing – save for the very few cheapo 3D gimmicks they’ve thrown in – such as having Gollum almost walk into the camera to emphasise just how much he hates Bagginses.  Thankfully, these distracting shots are few and far between and the film, by and large, moves the camera and the viewer’s eye around the screen very much as it would were it 2D.

As to the HFR … I could see a difference almost immediately.  In the panning shots over the city of Dale there was no strobing, as there often is with sideways movement.  The image was clear as a bell and camera movement was correspondingly smooth.  The additional detail was genuinely starting.  It is like the screen isn’t there and you’re looking through a hole in the wall to another world.  In the feasting scenes, I genuinely felt like I was sitting amongst the dwarves.  Surely, that’s the effect the film-makers have been striving for since … Forever.

But definition of this incredible height reveals the reality in a way that, maybe, Jackson and Co. had not banked upon.  Some of the sets now look like sets … Particularly Bag End, the pony stockade and Troll camp and a lot of the stone-work looks like the painted plaster it really is.  This same clarity also reveals the limitations in some of the special effects, which betray the reality of an actor standing in-front of a green screen reacting to something that will be added months later.

The approach to Rivendell not only looks like painted styrofoam in HFR but, thanks to some bizarre auditory illusion, it also sounds fake underfoot!
There is a lot of light and a considerable depth of field, meaning that a lot of what you see is in focus.  I suspect this is at the behest of the 3D, as it would be difficult to separate the image into layers and separate them, if they aren’t initially in focus.  This effect takes away from the cinematic feel of the viewing experience and makes the film look more like TV from the 1980s, when the video cameras needed a lot of light and a wide-open aperture to record the image with fidelity.  But, oddly, that effect was okay; it reminded me of fantasy TV shows like Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel and the BBC’s version of Narnia, shows for which I have considerable affection.  So, in an unexpected way, the nostalgia I felt in revisiting Middle Earth was heightened by a nostalgia I felt for the TV shows of bygone decades.

Of course, all is not exactly as we (who have not read the book) expect.  The hint’s in the film’s sub-title, after all.  The scene where two Stone Giants clash (essentially two mountains throwing smaller mountains at each-other) seems just a scene too far – betraying the child-like ambitions of the source novel rather than the rational maturity of its sequel.  Never-the-less, Jackson and Co. strive to make this complete fantasy as credible as possible, lighting it in (probably more than fifty) shades of grey and creating real suspense.  What could have been ridiculously over-the-top is possibly the most spectacular sequence in a thoroughly spectacular film.  It’s a moment of pure Harryhausen and I mean that as the highest compliment!

Other subtle differences are to be found in The Orcs, they are stranger than their ancestors will be sixty years hence, they do not speak English and they are almost all CGI creations now rather than the more obviously humanoid mime-artists in suits.  This is testament to how far CGI animation has come in the ten years since our last visit.  Then, Gollum was a remarkable achievement whose only real antecedent was the risible Jar-Jar Binks.  Now, he is just one of a multitude of completely convincing animated characters, each with their own personality.  Thanks in no small part to the pioneering work done for LOTR by Andy Serkis (who, of course, returns as Gollum for a cameo, then spent the rest of the shoot behind the camera, directing the second-unit action scenes) motion capture (or 'performance capture' as they prefer to describe it these days) has now become the way to create believable performances and breathe life into the wildest of CGI creations.

Click to enlarge and take in the incredible detail of this entirely CGI image.  "More real than real" would seem to be Weta's motto.
Given how used we have become to life-like animations, I was pretty concerned that Gollum would have to be pretty special to impress now, yet they couldn’t really change anything because that would be to betray my memories of him from LOTR.  I needn’t have feared … Serkis’ performance is masterful, a complex mix of pathos and humour and bestial rage, while the computers have whipped-up an extraordinary visual creation entirely suited to this sharper, clearer, brighter world, yet still unambiguously the same tortured soul we know so well!

Serkis shows the duality of the character, he bickers with himself and changes mood in mid-sentence.  He is by turns vulnerable and dangerous, loathsome and laughable and, ultimately, sympathetically sad.  Given his bi-polar nature that is perfectly proper but it’s an extraordinary feat for them to have given so much personality to a cloud of pixels.

Both the Troll and Goblin sequences rely heavily on the perf-cap technology.  They also are great examples of Jackson's habit of keeping people busy during his notoriously long and complicated shoots.

The Trolls are played by William Kircher, Peter Hambleton and Mark Hadlow who are, out of those fetching skin-tight costumes, also the Dwarves Bifur, Gloin and Dori respectively.
He also offered a laurel-branch to Australia by employing Dame Edna herself - Barry Humphries - as the voice and face of the Goblin King.

Even the loathsome Les Patterson couldn't have played this without make-up.
This sequence – largely played out in long shot as the gang fight their way through the tide or Orcs (or are they ‘Goblins’ … They don’t seem entirely sure) – stays just the right side of the Super Mario platform-game effect that the similar scenes in the Mines of Moria had last time … again because of the huge improvement I computer processing power and the sophistication of the software.  I confess, even as someone who is rarely impressed by sheer scale in a move, I thought these scenes were extraordinary in HFR.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen imagery so clear, so immersive.  Well presented, a 48 fps image genuinely is the theatrical equivalent to the step-up from DVD to Blu-Ray. 

The ridiculous fall down the crevasse, surfing the bridge as it breaks apart, a sequence even more preposterous than the hanging dinosaur fight in King Kong, even less feasible than the rocking-stone-archway in LOTR … Somehow seems completely convincing in HFR.  Indeed, the scenes immediately afterwards, on the hillside, when the CGI avatars are replaced by human actors once more, actually feel like something of a letdown after the razor-sharp hyper-real clarity of the Goblin Chase.

It’s fair to say that Gandalf has a habit of saving the day at the last minute.  He conveniently turns up at the Cave Troll camp just in time to stop them spit-roasting Bilbo and the boys, then arrives once again in the veritable nick, to save them all from the hoards of the Goblin King.  I hope they don’t keep playing this card, because it has already become predictable and will soon make the transition to corny.

Thorin butches up for his showdown with Azog ... Little does he know who'll save the day.
When Azog and Thorin make eye contact we’re into a world of slo-mo as they face off.  I’m a sucker for melodramatic slo-mo, me.  This battle, in the burning woods, is just as dramatic as Sean Bean’s face off against the Uruk-Hai at the same point in Fellowship.  Any other film series and I’d be criticising it for following its own template too closely, but I can’t do it here … By this point I couldn’t see anything but good.

The last Hobbit standing.  Howard Shore’s epic choral work.  The Giant Eagles.  Yes, yes and yes.  I even accepted that Gandalf saved the day again.  That’s why he’s there, after all!

Some might protest:  Why don’t the Eagles take the Dwarves all the way to that mountain, instead of dropping them on the randomly-chosen peak of another.  Well, where would be the fun in that?

When two hours and forty minutes suddenly came unexpectedly to an end, I was distraught … I didn’t want the journey to end.  I can’t wait for it to resume.

I confess that I still don’t know the names of all the dwarves off by heart, but it’s (relatively) early days yet.
And, to help you along, we have this helpful family portrait:

Don't strain your eyes - Click to enlarge ...
Sure, I have some concerns about the decision (apparently taken as late as last Easter, when a year of principal photography was all-but over) to expand the films from two to three.  As I've mentioned, I haven't read the book, but I understand the concerns of those who have, regarding him having enough material with which to fill three films.  But there is also a library of books published by Tolkien's son, filling-out the entire history of Middle Earth.  There is no shortage of stories to tell, absolutely no lack of material from which to cut the movie's cloth.  I understand that the cast are re-assembling for three more months of shooting.  They may refer to them as 're-shoots', but three months ... That's longer than most movies take to make.

My only real concern is over the pacing of the narrative.  A two-part structure is very different from a three-part one.  The so-called 'three-act structure' is the backbone of all Hollywood movies.  It has a tripod structure which is quite strong and well-balanced.  To be honest, I am more comfortable with this structure than with the two-parter, however, it does mean some elements that we were told to expect are now not going to be on our screens until next December.  Have a look at the banner below.  Click it to enlarge and take a gander at the last three panels ... All of which are scenes which were intended to be in An Unexpected Journey but are now, unexpectedly, not.

Click and scroll ... It's the last three panels you should be paying particular attention to ...
Whatever concerns I (or you) may have, I think it is undeniable that Jackson and Co. know their material as well as anyone and they have demonstrated - over four impossible movies - that they can be trusted with this material.

The Hobbit is an extraordinary achievement, an entirely worthy companion to Lord of the Rings as well as an expansion upon and development of its spectacle and creative ambition.

I’ve got two more films owed me and I want to enjoy every frame of them.  And at 48fps that’s a lot of frames!

As he did with King Kong in 2005, Jackson has allowed very detailed 'Production Diaries' to be produced showing the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into making this film.  With Kong they came out weekly, sometimes several a week, and constitute an incredible vision of a big movie being made from the perspective of practically every participant however apparently insignificant their contribution.  Many of these  videos were released on a now hard-to-find DVD, which I encourage you to buy if you can.

If anything, Jackson shared too much about the film before it was released and took away the magic before it had chance to cast its spell on us.  He has been a bit more restrained with The Hobbit, releasing just eight diaries in a little under two years.  They are easy to find on Jackson's blog and on The YouTube and look splendid in high definition (something which was not available for Kong's diaries in 2005, in the early days of YouTube and broadband).  However, someone has gone to the trouble of editing them all together as one long video so, simply for the ease of it ... Let's watch them all in one:


So, having made it through the welcome denial fantasy of Christmas and New Year followed, very promptly, by the bleak depression of the realisation January is back and we have to go through it all again ... I decided to use some of the free time I have, now my paid work has shrunk back to pre-Chrimbo levels, to do a little Cellulording.

Firstly, let us have a little look forward to the upcoming movies of 2013.  I'm not going to get into all that interweb speculation that so many other sites fill your screen with as they stumble over themselves to break the latest piece of unsubstantiated trivia a nano-second before their competitors ... Instead, I'm going to mull over the posters for this year's movies.

Most Hollywood movies tell the same story.  They tend to feature the same few actors and their special effects are done by the same few FX houses.  This gives them a uniformity which makes the accountants who run the Studios feel secure.  This we know.

But the uniformity and lack of imagination has spread throughout the process.  The trailers are all the same now, often using the same pieces of music and cut to the same tempo.  They follow the same narrative arc even if the film they are advertising doesn't (defence offers the now famous case of the woman who sued over the trailer for Drive).  This phenomena has also afflicted the posters.  Thanks to Photoshop, the days of the painted poster are pretty-much gone but then so are the days of the dodgy photo-montage.  The skill Photoshop wrangler can take photos and turn them into hyper-real painterly elements.  There is nothing that can't be put on a poster now, nothing.

That being so, why do they choose to put the same things on them time and time again?  Is it purely to create that sense of familiarity that supposedly draws the unthinking masses into multiplexes?  It's been going on for a long time but, this year, with the swarm of teaser posters for upcoming blockbusters ... It's become patently ridiculous.

What kicked me off was the release of this image:

It's an interesting, bleak post-Apocalyptic kind of image.  The reason it particularly stood out to me is that it hit the internets just a week after the teaser for Star Trek Into Darkness:

You'll immediately see what I saw.  Same composition, same Apocalyptic tone, same palette ... Same pose for the solitary figure, back to us, looking moody.

If this were a coincidence, all well and good ... But it isn't ... It's an attack of the clones ... Another one of next year's tent-pole films is Iron Man 3:

Notice anything?  Blues and greys?  Hero with his back to us ... Yeah?

Now, don't get me wrong, I few graphic designers are really pushing the boundaries of what you can do with a teaser poster cos there's ...

The graphic two-colour version.  There's the full colour variation:

And there's the group shot too ... With added silhouettes:

So, I dunno what you're expecting from any of these films but me, I'm expecting to see the cast walking away.  A lot.

Of course, it's not like it's a new phenomenon.  I mean, last year we had some pioneering work done in promoting the Feminist agenda by the marketeers of:

and ...

as well as ...

... Because all of those figures are female.  I think.  Slightly less oestrogen-soaked we had this:

Which was somewhat inevitable, as this whole cliché began in 2008 with The Dark Knight and this:

And, I suppose all of these posters are a variation on the theme struck by Scrotum of Boris (or Quantum of Solace as everyone except Adam Buxton knows it) ...

Which, of course, owes more than a tip of the hat to The Phantom Menace which famously teased the world ten years before with this:

So, it seems that, as with all bad things, for the paucity of imagination in movie poster design ... We can blame George.


Did I mention I co-wrote a film a few years ago?

I was brought in as a consultant and, essentially, ended-up helping Greg completely re-write it.

It's a little bit lo-res, cos it's taken off my VHS copy (you remember VHS) but feel free to have a watch and let me know what you think. 

Hey, it's only 26 minutes of your life you'll never get back!


First thoughts.  That’s what this piece will be.  Half-formed, poorly-considered thoughts.

Having maintained my usual exhausting self-imposed media blackout on this film … I went to see it today as cold as anyone could.  I haven’t opened a copy of ‘Empire’ in months, have avoided some of my favourite websites and found myself sitting in the cinema with my fingers in my ears going “La-la-la” while the trailer played.  (If you think I’m joking … You don’t know me that well).

So, I’m not intending to spoil the film, but by merely talking about it, I’m going to … So, if you have any ambition to watch this film … Don’t read on.

Give yourself the chance to see the film …

Okay?  So, I’ll assume you have seen it if you’re still here.

So when is a trilogy not really a trilogy?
I was reasonably indifferent to Batman Begins (2005).  I enjoyed it but, y’know, it wasn’t the ‘Batman: Year One’ I’d been hoping for.  And it had Liam Neeson, which, in his post-Phantom Menace, (1999) pre-Taken (2009) ‘wilderness years’ was rarely a great thing.  Then there were the unconvincing sets (The Narrows) and dodgy special effects (all that mono-rail stuff … please).  But it did have the relationship between Wayne and Alfred and Lucius Fox.  It had the development of the armour and the Tumbler.  It had some pretty bloody spectacular location photography (fighting on a frozen lake, etc).  It at least attempted to be a grown-up superhero film.  A first for a DC-owned property, in my humble opinion!

Then The Dark Knight (2008) arrived.  It was a phenomenon.  Everything that I felt was wrong about Begins was right about this film.  Everything that I had thought right about Begins was even more right.  Gone were the dodgy sets and effects … This time it was shot on location and the effects were practical … where practical.

You won't hear any mentions of either The Joker or Arkham in this film.  No joke.
My straw-poll survey made The Dark Knight the second favourite film of the decade and it was my second favourite too.  It remains my absolute favourite superhero film … And I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Marvelite.

TDK (as its friends call it) was such a profound leap forward from BB (as, I suspect, no one calls it) it vastly surpassed my expectation.  As such, The Dark Knight Rises was almost bound to be a disappointment … Simply because it couldn’t possibly exceed the now stratospheric expectation.

I knew this going in.

As he did with TDK, he begins by catching us off guard.  Whereas that film’s prologue was a bank heist, this film has a full on Bond-movie pre-title sequence, complete with jaw-dropping aerial stunts.  I don’t suppose Nolan is pitching to direct the next Bond but, if he were, this audition would doubtless secure him the job.

Then we go into a lengthy, but necessary process of catch-up.  It’s been eight years since Bats took the fall for the now-sainted Harvey Dent … Eight years when he has not once donned the cape and cowl.  So far so very ‘The Dark Knight Returns’.

If you felt Bats coming out of retirement rang a few bells ...
If you’ve never read Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s definitive vision of The Batman (the one that effectively made every subsequent story unnecessary) then treat yourself.  The build-up to Bats’ inevitable return is mythical and his arrival is seismic.  Sadly, by comparison, Batman’s return in this film is something of a damp squib.

Anyway, as before, Nolan has lifted elements from a variety of Batman comic-books, 1993's 'Knightfall' by Doug Moench and Jim Aparo, of course, Miller’s 'Dark Knight Returns', touches of Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke's revamped version of Catwoman and, as usual, the atmosphere of the Loeb/Sale stories.  He also refers back, often in cunningly subtle ways, to his own previous films (the burning bat symbol, the frozen river, the circular pit) all of which is mixed together with an awareness of the world-wide audience’s rage at the elite rich having destroyed our economy in the years since the last film came out.

There was clearly no plan at the beginning to make a trilogy – hence the clear visual and tonal difference between the first two films, but, never-the-less, Nolan (and his fellow script-writer, his brother, Jonathan Nolan) have woven enough of the thematic fabric of the first film into this third to create a satisfying conclusion.  Very much in the way the Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) ties up the threads of Die Hard (1988).

Problems there are, certainly.  Small problems, such as … Why is Wayne limping for the film’s first half hour and where does the limp go?  How come a punch in the back cures a shattered spine?  Who is in charge of The Pit and why is it there?  And Matthew Modine … Ehm … Why?

Then there are larger problems … Such as my failure to connect with Bane.  Maybe it is because muscle is inherently less interesting than cunning.  Where The Joker was an evil genius, expressively performed by Heath Ledger who was inspired by the opportunities the role afforded him … Tom Hardy is literally muzzled as Bane.   

Hardy, no stranger to out-methoding Bale put on two stone of muscle for this.  Bale grew a tache.
His scenes with Batman are perfunctory and largely consist of them whacking each-other in a, frankly, not very cinematic way.  Nolan has never really made a big deal out of the fight scenes with these films.  I’m not complaining, particularly, since fight scenes hardly constitute the intellectual high-point of a movie.  Maybe some of the limitation is brought about by Bale’s insistence on doing most of that sort of stuff himself, maybe some of comes about because the IMAX screen of which Nolan has become fond, doesn’t lend itself to rapid editing and whip-pans.  Whatever the reasons, the fights have never been the point of these films … So, to reduce Batman and Bane’s conflict to a street-brawl seems anti-climactic, as though it is beneath the dignity of both characters.  And there is some dignity to Hardy’s performance of Bane, even if it is stifled by that (never fully explained) mask.  It is also worth mentioning that the slightly fuzzy vocal effect they have put on Hardy's voice makes some of his dialogue difficult to follow.  So, if you have no idea what he's saying, don't worry, you're not alone.

Okay so, unlike, say, Darth Vader, he can at least use his eyes … Which he does, to great effect.  There is some humour here, not least in his Yoda-like dialogue delivery … But times several I found myself wondering if the dialogue was being added afterwards and Hardy was mere miming.  He seemed like the passion and aggression that his physicality demanded was lacking.  Sadly, Hardy is perfectly cast in this role, but is simply not allowed to play to his considerable strengths.  Watch Bronson to see him being uncontrollably physical and truly, disturbingly terrifying.  Here, only in his final scene with Batman does he become a fully rounded character but it is too little too late.

So I was disappointed with Tom Hardy … Not disappointed by him so much as for him.  

Notice how the eyes seem to follow you round the room ...
Maybe if this film hadn’t been shackled to its 12A certificate and, therefore, it’s need to not upset anyone above the age of five, maybe then we could have seen Bane let off the leash.  Maybe characters we are supposed to be invested in could be allowed to die on screen.  Maybe the realistic vision could be permitted some realistic blood-letting.  But none of that is directly Nolan’s fault, that is down to the MPAA and the BBFC who censor the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

But what about the story?  Does it have the multi-layered complexity of TDK?  In spades!  Lesser film-makers would have made massive set-pieces, if not entire movies out of sequences which Nolan references in passing – such as the blowing-up of the bridges, or the trapping of the entire police-force underground.  Indeed, the number of plot-threads is actually too mind-boggling to follow in a single viewing.  This is not helped by the way that the film’s structure seems to fly apart in the third act.  Our hero is lying on his back on the other side of the planet while, in the space of a montage, three months passes and Commissioner Gordon is leading a resistance movement in the unruly streets of chaos-riven Gotham and them … It’s three weeks after that and a few hours till a nuclear bomb is going to turn Manhattan Island (sorry, Gotham Island) into Hiroshima 2.0.

But, hang on, didn’t The Joker mine the bridges last time?  Well, he said he did … But we didn’t see any blowing up.  Here we do.

Sorry … Did you mention a nuclear bomb?  Yep.   Another touch of the old Bond movie!  Mixed-in (had they but known) with a touch of The Avengers.  That, I confess, was a bit of a stretch.  For a series that had striven to be real, to pitch realistic characters with realistic motivations against each-other in realistic ways … The nuclear stand-off and its resolution was pushing things a bit.

Okay, so I had problems with the film … Problems which may evaporate with a second viewing.  But there were also pleasures.

What's new, pussy-cat?
Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is a pitch-perfect delight.  She isn’t there as cheese-cake.  I didn’t notice a single lingering shot of her arse in her tight costume.  She doesn’t need Bruce to come along and rescue her … indeed she does the rescuing … And no one, at any point, even contemplates calling her ‘Cat Woman’.  Oh.  Thank.  God.

Joseph Gordon Levitt is spot-on as John Blake a character who takes up the campaigning reigns of a younger Jim Gordon, who is now polluted by the lie he has been telling about Harvey Dent all these years.  Indeed, as the film proceeds, he evolves from being a proto-Gordon, to a proto-Bruce Wayne … And there will be much interweb speculation about where that particular story thread will lead.

Rather like Bale before him ... The uncomfortable teenager has all grown -up and is an action movie star in the making.
Michael Caine succeeds (once again) in bringing a lump to the throat as Wayne’s Better Angel, constantly telling him the unvarnished truth … Even if one or two of his exchanges did echo with the recent memory of Martin Freeman’s astonishing turn as John Watson in the TV version of Sherlock.

I loved the way that this film (inadvertently) turns over the coin to its scarred side and shows us what a big city is really like.  In The Amazing Spider-Man (as well as in Raimi’s more fantastical versions of the story) we got New Yorkers pulling together to protect their own.  But Gotham, as seen by Nolan (and, before him, Frank Miller) is a very different kind of New York.  Here, when the ‘ordinary Gothamites’ are cut loose … They just ransack the place, freeing prisoners, setting up kangaroo courts and hanging ‘the guilty’ from bridges.  This is a city where freedom from the shackles of law-and-order simply means anarchic self-destruction.

I loved the hectic, dizzying pace of the third act, with its echoes of Robocop (1987) and Escape From New York (1981).  I loved the sheer scale of the visuals … From the size of the sets (the huge, Goya-esque court-room … The multi-story sewer … The run-off where the police are trapped … The Pit) as much as the audacious way the locations are shot (as often as not from the air).

Half upside-down insect / half helicopter hybrid ... If I can't have Deckard's Spinner - I want that!
I love The Bat.  I love the fact that they don’t call it a Bat-Wing and I want one!

I love the ambition of taking a superhero movie and making it about class-war, terrorism, social group-dynamics, personal-morality and war!

I love the fact that the last act rambles over five months, has none of the unities script-writers are trained to observe, and yet still hangs together as an energetic and epic story.

I love the fact that the film has about four false endings and I only guessed two of them.

I haven't mentioned The Bat Pod ... But Selina Kyle just looks too cool on it to ignore.
Ultimately, this is not as satisfying an experience as The Dark Knight.  It strives for so much scale the human element gets lost.  It strives for so many narrative threads that the coherence gets lost.  It lacks the charismatic heart The Joker gave to the last film and it lacks his clearly-defined motivation.  We never do really know why Bane is doing what he’s doing.  But it is an experience, a truly epic experience full of ideas … And there are precious few of those in most $250 million movies.

If Nolan has failed it is only partially and it is only because he was too ambitious.  And God bless him for it.  That ambition worked in The Dark Knight and gave us the first IMAX block-buster.  It worked in Inception and gave us the most intelligent block-buster probably ever … And it works here more than it doesn’t.

None of that 3D nonsense for our Christopher.
More than anything else … I love the fact that this is in 2D.  And always will be.

I also love the fact that, in a few days, I will be seeing it again on an IMAX screen!  So I might be back with more …

When you have seen the film you, if you're anything like me, probably like to peek behind the curtain to see how it was done.  Well, rather conveniently, this 13-minute-long making-of has been on-line for a while.  Just the job.
… Meanwhile, as you may know, there has been a typically American tragedy at a midnight screening of this film.  In a town apparently just fifteen miles from Columbine, another psychopath starved of publicity has decided to make himself famous in the wrongest way possible. 

The news media, which is whacking itself dry with excitement over this, is sparing is no lascivious detail of what they are already calling ‘The Batman Killings’.  Indeed, as I type this, they are telling us that the perpetrator was made up to look like The Joker.  This will, inevitably, re-ignite the Media effects Debate that rages on year-after-year and which I will, in all likelihood, be evoking to my Media students at some point in the future.

Over at Zap 2 It, they have noticed that Miller's 'Dark Knight Returns' chillingly dealt with this issue (including the notion of the media's culpability) in its Arnold Crimp tableau:

The message here is that a deranged mind - and let us not forget that no-one chooses to be mentally ill - will take inspiration from any source, will confuse and misinterpret that inspiration and will fit it into a skewed reality.  Wiser voices than mine have noted, many times, that you cannot legislate for the infinite variety of human personality.  But one thing we can do, is not obsess over the details. 

Earlier today, a friend and ex-student reminded me of this … It’s short, it’s pointed and it’s the single most coherent comment I’ve ever heard on this type of atrocity …

For now, if you were intending to go and see The Dark Knight Rises … or any other movie … Go.  Don’t let the weakness of one mad individual, or the cumulative weakness of one mad society, dictate your actions.

If you want to know more about violent crime in American – watch Bowling For Columbine and if you want to understand the irresistible power of the media over our minds … I urge you to look up the name Adam Curtis.


John Carter and his blue rays are now on Blu-Ray, although you'd be forgiven for not having noticed ...
I love John Carter.  There, I’ve said it.  Well, written it.  I've waited over thirty-five years for the books I loved as a child to arrive on my preferred medium ... The screen.  And, damnit, it was worth the wait!  You’ll presumably proceed with reading this or not depending on your own thoughts on the film in relation to mine.  We’ve got a long journey together (yes, another one) so, y’know … I’m giving you an out here.

If you don’t think you’ll make it … Go and watch Spider-Man or something.

Okay?  So, where was I?  Oh yeah, pledging my troth to John Carter.  Didn’t love the title, mind.  If Disney were so terrified of the dreaded ‘M’ word (which they themselves spoiled with the dark and troubling mega-flop Mars Needs Moms in 2011) they should have called the film ‘Barsoom’.  That would have at least intrigued the uninitiated and deeply pleased the likes of me.  But no, the infinitely wise marketing people at the House of Mouse decided that the very best thing to do was shave off the bit of the title that made the film seem exotic and magical and, instead, make it sound like a George Clooney movie.  (Nothing wrong with that, by the way, it’s just not for the same audience).  As Carter himself says towards the end of the film “John Carter of Mars sounds much better”.

When this news broke, it did not bode well.  Sadly, it was the first inkling of problems with the film which became evident with the marketing.

The early teaser posters for the film had that magical, intriguing air that the books exude, combined with an elegant beauty.  The ‘JCM’ logo was perfect and the landscape image below filled me with a childish joy I hadn’t felt since looking, long and hard at the Lord of the Rings posters ten years ago.  

The full-size version of this is ginormous so please have a click and a damn good look.
However.  This is an only semi-official poster.  It was produced by ‘Mondo’ and given away free to those attending the initial midnight IMAX screening of the film.  The proper posters are far less exotic.

See, once they dropped the ‘Of Mars’ it all changed.  The logo became meaningless and we were presented with garish posters which told us nothing.  They didn’t fill me with excitement and hope and open-minded questions like posters should.  And they're orange!?

Then there were the trailers.  None of Disney’s trailers really quite did the film justice.   Nine months before its release we had this teaser … Which works nicely enough, capitalising on the relationship the film’s director had established during the making of Wall.E (2008) with Peter Gabriel.  Exotic, subtle and complex music suggests an exotic, subtle and complex film, yes?

A fan-edit seemed to better sum up the dramatic and epic feel of the film:

Ironically, Kerry Conran (the director of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - 2004) put together a pitch proposal for the film when he was scheduled to direct it (that was before Robert Rodriguez, who was before Jon Favreau, who was before Andrew Stanton).  This pitch is, if you'll pardon the pun, pitch perfect.  

Importantly, it mentions Tarzan!  Why did none of the other marketing do this?  Surely the corporation that now control ERB's properties couldn't have had an objection to one being evoked to help sell another?

Whaddya mean this looks like Avatar?
Whatever the problem, subsequent trailers succeeded in making the film look like Prince of Persia.  They made it look like both The Phantom Menace and The Attack of the Clones.  They made it look like a pale rip-off of any number of recent films which is, of course, terribly sad … Since Burroughs’ Barsoom predates all of them.

The publication of A Princess of Mars as a serial in 1912 - and a novel in 1917 (from which the above cover comes) - heralded a new type of uncomplicated hero who was brave, romantic, incorruptible and, well, super!  Burroughs clearly had an influence on the comic strips Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, 20 years later, and Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, a few years after that.  

And we all know just what an affect all that had on young Steven Spielberg and, particularly, George Lucas.  So, in a very real sense, we can say that, without Burroughs’ Barsoom, there would have been no Star Wars.  And without Star Wars … The last 35 years of Hollywood production would have been very different!

All that said – It is worth noting that Burroughs’ work was not entirely without precedent.  Novelist and Burroughs biographer Richard A. Lupoff notes in his wonderful biography of Burroughs: Master of Adventure, that A Princess of Mars bears at least a passing resemblance to Edwin Lester Arnold's 1905 novel Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, which you can read for free on-line in its re-titled rendition: Gulliver of Mars at Project Gutenberg, here.

Because of the eccentricities of international copyright law, you can also read all of A Princess of Mars on-line, also free, here.

As the Kerry Conran video illustrates, it is confusing that it has taken quite this long for Barsoom to reach our screens.  Yes, I am aware of the 2009 straight-to-DVD cheapie Princess of Mars, which capitalised on the work falling into public domain in the States ... But even that was a late-comer ... Given that the first proposed adaptation was in 1936 - when the live-action, Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films were at the peak of their popularity - Disney and Looney Tunes’ animator, Bob Clampett, worked on a proposed animated adaptation of the Carter books.  Details about that can be found here on the official Edgar Rice Burroughs magazine website, and the few moments of surviving footage is introduced by Clampett himself here:

Ironically, five years later, Dave and Max Fleischer succeeded in creating an animated series based on Superman comics, and made them in the realistic style Clampett intended for Carter.  In case you’re interested, you can see all 17 of those Superman films in their entirety for free, gratis and nothing, here.  Make time for them, they are quite extraordinary, and make you wonder just how marvellous Clampett's plans might have been if they'd reached fruition.

Here's one of the early ones, just to whet your appetite:

Anyway ... Back to the tale of someone else who seems able to leap tall buildings in a single bound ... John Carter.

I feel that a lot of the issues I have with this film adaptation, stem from the baggage of previous failed attempts.  The script for this version is based on several pre-existing scripts – particularly one written even before Kerry Conran's involvement, by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott back in 1991 when both of them were at the beginning of an astonishing script-writing career (just look-up their credits and admit you’re impressed!)  Unfortunately, the script we have now, a mosaic of several scripts, patched together by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, too freely adapts some parts of the novel and sticks too closely to others. 

The very opening – Which brings us in on a battle taking place in the skies of Barsoom - focuses on Sab Than (Dominic West).  Since he is our first glimpse of a Barsoomian, it is not unnatural for us to assume he will be the hero of the story.  But he isn’t.  Indeed, he will develop into the villain.  We don’t meet the ‘good’ Martians at this point.

Then we swoop over to Earth and we are introduced to an earnest, young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara).  Is he the hero?  No.  Indeed, he is informed that his uncle, John Carter, the character we are waiting to meet … is dead.

Then we launch into flashbacks, to finally meet John Carter.  But, is he the Barsoomian warrior?  No … He’s trying to avoid being drafted into the Cavalry (not very successfully).

These early chapters, detailing his Wild West exploits, were necessary in the novel one hundred years ago, that’s what readers of pulp fiction were accustomed to.  They expected to read the exploits of cowboys.  The cowboy is the original American hero … His presence can be felt in the noir detective, the renegade cop and the modern action hero.  Wherever there is a man who takes a stand, alone against evil, there you have the iconic fictional cowboy.

However, a century on, when the Western genre is as good a dead – at least in its horse-riding, dust-busting original form - these early establishing scenes are time-consuming and confusing.  As scene-setting and character-formation, these first ten minutes form a perfectly fine ‘Foreword’, and would have made a nice addition here on the BD as part of a ‘Director’s Cut’, adding texture for the benefit of those viewers who are already fans of the film.  

But including them in the theatrical version means they simply serve to hobble the movie in its all-important opening-reel.  They are an amusing diversion, well-shot, well-edited, well-performed by actors who would otherwise have not appeared in the film,  But they are a diversion none-the-less.  Yes, they book-end very nicely with the ‘Afterword’, which neatly solves the riddles surrounding the mysterious Earth-bound Carter and draw a line under the films narrative.  But was that conclusion sufficient motivation for the much-delayed introduction?  I confess I think not.

These scenes are designed to strike the contrast between Earth and Mars.  Despite the fact that we know (from our American movies) that it only ever rains in England ... Earth (i.e. America) is initially shown as cold, tinged blue and marred by bucketing rain.  This is clearly intended to illustrate the vast difference between our wet, blue planet and Mars' arid, sun-scorched deserts.  However ... The last thing Carter does on Earth is ride out - with the cavalry - into the Arizona desert, where the sedimentary layers in the distant bluffs are familiar from a million cowboy movies.  When he wakes up on 'Barsoom', he is in the middle of a (admittedly, yellow) desert and away in the distance ... Exactly the same kind of rock formations.  So, our first glimpse of the Martian surface is at pains to make it look like Earth.  A confusing choice!

All the first-time viewer actually needs is to see Carter finding The Cave, teleport himself to Barsoom and find the place clearly, profoundly alien.  Job done:  On with the show.

As an aside – I think the idea of a teleportation device to travel to-and-from planets is a much better notion than the astral-projection-out-of-body-experience Burroughs employed in the novel.

So, Carter has finally arrived on Mars, with its solar-powered steam-punk flying greenhouse airships, henna tattoos, leather battle-harnesses-and-armour-in-lieu-of-clothes and, of course, the tall, lean, tusky Tharks – All of which are absolutely bang-on.  Exactly as I imagined they would be, 35 years ago when I was voraciously reading the books. The set design and costume design here is delightful.  Yes, it's somewhat similar to last year's Thor (which, despite what I said here, is gorgeous when unshackled from the chains of 3D) but the film-makers here weren't to know that when they were hard at work.

What was less in-keeping with the magic of those books – is Barsoom itself.  One is forced to wonder why they settled for filming in Utah.  They have created CGI characters, CGI cities and CGI flying ships … Why could they have not at least enhanced their locations with some more CGI?  The sky, particularly, is wrong.  It is constantly telling you that you’re really on Earth.   

This picture is also a whopper - click and enjoy.  That's the real Mars, people.  Be amazed!
See, this is what the sky really looks like on Mars – thanks to this mind-expanding image recently published by NASA and taken by its Mars Rover (a sort-of real-world Wall.E!)  You can find out all about this incredible image from NASA, here.

However, in the illustrations I remember from the books, the sky was darker than ours.  From the very beginning, the images associated with the books had a raw, muscular energy and a dark, gothic edge and the sky was dark.  Sometimes a rusty brown, sometimes the colour of blood … But never blue.  Look at these, the very earliest illustrations:

There is a gallery of these extraordinary early images, from several of the artists (particularly J. Allen St. John) who brought Burroughs’ vision to life in those early years, in this lovely Golden Age comics-book blog.  Of course, by the time I came to read the books in the 1970s, the covers looked more like this …

And, more recently, they’ve looked like this, where, yes, the sky is blue … But look at the landscape, with its exotic city on the horizon and its two moons.  It just looks alien!

In the movie … Barsoom looks like this.  Spectacular, no doubt.  Representative of an exhausted, dying planet?  Certainly.  But alien?  No.  It looks like Utah. 

Which is not surprising … Since it is Utah.  Now, Utah is spectacular and extraordinary and beautiful in its own worn-out, bony way … But we’ve seen John Wayne lead cavalry charges through it so many times, we almost expect to see the Indians still riding across it, as they were before Carter hid in The Cave. 

And that sky?  In these days of digital colour grading, the ochre of the real thing, or the clotted-blood of the Frazetta paintings would be relatively easy to achieve.  As would the ruined cities on the horizon.

If Barsoom is dying, we need to see a world that looks ancient and complicated and steeped in long-forgotten secrets.  Peter Jackson managed it with Lord of the Rings … But he was thinking outside the American box.  Yes, as with (particularly) The Fellowship of the Ring, we get ancient architectural artefacts of lost, forgotten civilisations (we are told several times that Zodanga has been waging war against  ... well, everyone else, for over a thousand years) but they are blended into the landscape.  Towers and cities and monuments of sandstone, all weathered and worn so badly that they are all-but indistinguishable from those rocky bluffs from which they once rose.  I didn't even notice them the first time I saw the film!  Maybe if Stanson and crew had shot the Barsoom scenes in the heart of Australia, or Namibia … we would have had some truly alien-looking landscapes.  Maybe if they had made the ruins look less like very Earthly Egyptian or Sumerian ruins, they would have made more of an impression.  But all this is speculation and apropos of nothing, since that is not what they did.  

So, as relatively disappointing as it is, we are finally on Mars.  But, again, the story stutters rather than getting stuck in.  We have been introduced to Ned Burroughs and his world, then to young John Carter and his, now we have to adjust to this new environment of Tharks, Helium, Radium, Deja Thoris, Therns and … Alright, already, too many introductions! 

The tribal Thark people are presented very much as I remember them from the book, noble and savage, and the Performance-Capture animation featuring Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton is faultless.  Their world stands in stark contrast to the opulent technologically advanced cities where the tattooed humanoid Martians are played by British character actors to a man!  Texan, Lynn Collins, who plays The Princess, Deja Thoris (after whom the original novel was named) joins in by assuming a convincing English accent. 

So, as I always suspected when reading the books … They speak Barsoomian with an English accent!  Well, why not?  For sixty years we’ve been watching Roman epics like Quo Vadis?( (1961) and Ben-Hur (1959) full of centurions and senators speaking Latin with American accents. 

"What ho ... As we Martians say."
Here in the cities, the politics and the power-playing is to the fore.  The Zodangans and Heliumites are engaged in an arms race and, thanks to the intervention of the mysterious Therns, the Zodangans are now winning.  They have an ultimate weapon.  So, as a political move, Deja is to be married off to Jeddak Sab Than (who we met briefly earlier), in order to protect her now-defeated city of Helium from falling prey to his city of Zodanga.  It gradually becomes clear that our sympathies should lie with her and her truculent father rather than with McNulty and his equally tattooed people.  This takes a while, since we met him long before we met her and her father.  Also, the fact that their tattoos are, at least at face value, identical, makes it harder to parse that they are sworn enemies.

Now, inevitable comparisons notwithstanding, Deja is no passive Dale Arden type, waiting to be rescued.  She, instead takes her fate in her own hands, decides that she doesn’t want to be married off, and heads off into the wilderness, leading her own mini-rebellion and expertly wielding her sword.  There is a delightful moment when Carter takes her sword and tells her to stand behind him, only to have her retrieve her sword and defend him.  In this respect, she is much more the template for Princess Leia!

And so, finally, Deja and John’s paths cross, he is recognised as a formidable warrior by all and sundry and we’re off and running.  Or jumping. 

It says something about our still-paternalistic society that Hollywood didn’t see how anyone would take to a film named A Princess of Mars … Because they have spent some time marketing one-dimensional rom-coms and teen-flicks with words like ‘Princess’ in the title.  Never-the-less, Collin’s performance as the titular Princess is the key to the film working, at least as a character piece.  Carter’s respect for her (and fear of her) fires up emotions in him that have lain dormant.  A good half-way through the film we get a moment when he realises he has emotions for Deja, which sparks memories of his Earth-bound family … Burned to death in some unexplained atrocity.  Suddenly we understand why he spends the films’ first act frowning, why he is so truculent and why.  Suddenly he has something he is prepared to fight for.  The moment when he launches himself, solo, at a several-thousand-strong hoard of rampaging Warhoon warriors, in order to protect Deja, it is spine-tingling.  Aided, in no small part, by some extraordinary editing and the soaring, soulful score of the vastly-over-productive Michael Giacchino.
Swelling the ranks of the Brit thesps in the film is Mark Strong, Hollywood’s bad-guy du jour.  He plays a magic monk with the vaguely Oriental sounding name of Matai Shang (who is actually imported from Burroughs' second Mars book, The Gods of Mars – 1913 – to help give this film some structure).  He is a puppet-master, manipulating the Zodangans for his own nefarious ends.  As he explains “We don’t cause the destruction of worlds, we just manage it.  Feed off it, you might say.”

Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars was, at its heart, a romance.  And I mean that in every sense of the word.  Yet, here, the relationship between Deja and John seems oddly platonic … Like children, they charge around the desert, getting into scrapes, having adventures and rescuing each other (this version of Deja stresses her sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves feminist credentials – which were there in the original novels, if not quite so overtly as we see them).  Then, suddenly, spontaneously, they decide that they love each other at the end and it turns into what The Princess Bride’s Fred Savage would refer to as ‘a kissing book’.  Well where did that come from?  Oh, I know …. Narrative necessity!

Something they have added to the novel is humour.  Not a trace of self-mockery or irony will you find in a Burroughs book, they are terribly po-faced (which is why they are perfect for earnest young boys to read in their pre-teen or early teen years).  These days, as our culture sucks the last drags from the fag-end of Post-Modernism, we need to have our pastiches be laced with humour.  It elevates a camp fantasy conceit and makes it palatable for a modern audience.  Like most modern animators, Stanton is a master of that and you can see his Pixar credentials particularly in his handling of the Woola character – who is the endearing frog-dog pet and is simply delightful!  There is also a very brave red herring in the thirds act which is as hilarious as it is ridiculous!

Sit ... Heel ... Play dead!
The movie is relatively light on big name stars.  Where they might have cast someone like Anthony Hopkins as Tardos Mors (Deja’s dad) they went for Ciarán Hinds.  An excellent performer who can bring real gravitas and threat to a performance … But, let’s be honest, he’s not a star.  Indeed, the only real star in there is Willem Dafoe and, in this film, he is neither playing the villain, nor is he actually on screen.  So, that leaves all the weight of the film on the shoulders of TV’s Taylor Kitsch and the afore-mentioned Ms. Collins. 

While she acquits herself marvellously; he simply isn't charismatic enough to carry a film on his own, which is essentially what he is required to do.  He has the physique and the ability to hold together a good performance.  He manages to give Carter some depth in the scenes where he is feeling fatalistic … He can even do the comedy … but, for me, he lacks that spark of likeability that instantly made Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler and Chris Hemsworth stars in similar circumstances.

Yet, despite all this, the magic of the film still comes through.    The film has a beauty to it and a gloss of gosh-wow magic that few movies these days achieve. 

Now, remember at the top I said I love this film?  Well, I’ve spent a couple of thousand words picking holes in it since, so you may have had chance to forget I wrote that.  But I do.  I love it. 

Whilst I sat in the cinema jotting down all the plot-holes, location issues, lumpy characterisation and pacing problems I was still grinning.  Ordinarily, I would have been bored by a film that takes so long to get its plot underway but, here, everything is done so well, the visuals are so beautiful and the feel of the piece is just so magical that I had to forgive it.  Had to.

The look and feel of the world is totally compelling.  No, it isn’t right … It isn’t what I expected … It has clearly been compromised … But the airships, the cities, the costumes, those gorgeous tattoos … It is all just so exotic and magical that I was filled with an unrestrained childish joy seeing all these things I’d had rattling around in the back of my mind for more than thirty years suddenly up there on screen.  Maybe their version is right … Maybe it’s my memory and nostalgia goggles that need adjusting.

See ... Look at that city.  Wouldn't you wanna live there if you could?
There was an innocence to Burroughs’ work and the spirit that almost childish vision of Mars is captured.  I have always felt that the magic of the Harry Potter books and films seemed hollow and apologetic and the actors seemed faintly embarrassed waving around their twigs and uttering Pig Latin.   But not so this kind of magic.  This is simple, direct story-telling.  This is a vision of Mars, divorced entirely of any attempt to create reality.  Burroughs had obviously read Percival Lowell’s thoughts on the canals of Mars (published in the self-explanatory Mars and its Canals in 1906).  This was an entirely serious theory that Mars held not only life, but sophisticated life that had irrigated the land.  The notion dated back to 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli noted ‘canali’ on the Martian surface.  Unfortunately, this word – which means ‘channel’ - was mis-translated into English as ‘canal’, and so I wonderfully fanciful theory was born in Lowell’s mind.

I know ... Canals!  What a mook.
Burroughs didn’t  care whether Percival Lowell’s canals really existed on Mars … He couldn’t conceive of a time when we would be able to send a craft up there and drive around on the surface taking and sending home extraordinarily beautiful photographs.   He simply saw Mars, our nearest planetary neighbour, as the perfect place to play out his romantic, adventures.

For him, the mere thought of the canals and what they suggested about the people of Mars sent him off into wild flights of fantasy that logic, science and credibility would only have hindered.  It’s exactly that kind of unshackled imagination that creates iconic fictions which pass down through generations, inspiring fans, copyists and adapters for decades on end.  It’s the kind of imagination which would, very soon, imagine a baby brought up in a jungle by apes.  But that, as they say, is a different story. 

Within two weeks' of John Carter's release, Disney threw in the towel - conceding that the film was a massive flop, the worst it had ever suffered (worse than Mars Needs Moms) and that they would waste no more resources on it.  that is why the DVD and Blu-Ray release was handled as a matter of contractual necessity, with no trace of fanfare.  There is now no chance that the promised trilogy of Barsoom movies will materialise ... Mars is a dead planet!  We will never get to explore the rest of this exotic landscape.

But I still don't think we've heard the last of Barsoom.  I think the fans will stay with this film ... They will nurture it like a precious flame, protecting it and keeping it alive.  Personally, I’d still love to see the version Andrew Stanton had in mind before Disney got cold feet, pushed the release date back a year and started interfering. Who knows?  It took twenty years to get the definitive version of Apocalypse Now and thirty years for Blade Runner, but it happened.  I have hope. I waited thirty-five years for this version ... I’m patient ... If necessary, I'll wait thirty-five years for the next. 

For the technical specs and a full run-down of the extras on the Blu-Ray of John Carter, why not wander over and glance at the review I wrote for What Culture, here?