DARK KNIGHT RISES



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 (OF MARS)


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 CiarĂ¡n 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?

THE AMAZING (sic) SPIDER-MAN


I’m going to try an experiment.  I’m going to see if I can write reviews in less than 1,000 words.  As you’ve doubtless noticed, it typically takes you as long to read my review as it does to watch the damn film.  So I’m going to see if I have any talent for (relative) brevity.

And the first film I am going to try this on for size with is The (so-called) Amazing Spider-Man

First off - and just to get this off my chest – I don’t like origin stories.  If origin stories were so important, then every movie would be one.  By which, I don’t just mean every superhero movie … I mean every movie.  But they aren’t, are they?  The rom-coms or zombie holocaust movies you watch don’t spend their first hour telling you the entire life-story of every character, do they?  No.  In fact, most movies don’t bother with being an origin story, it’s something that's almost unique to the Superhero genre.   Makers of other genres have realised that we are sophisticated enough to understand and identify with characters without having to sit through their home movies and baby photos.

Now, I appreciate that sometimes you need to see scenes from a character’s past to understand their personality, motivations, background or whatever … But a pre-title prologue or a couple of informative flash-backs should cover that – if a few simple lines of dialogue won’t.

(Hm. 250 words and I haven’t even got to the film yet.  Not looking good.)

Tobey or not Tobey ... Erm ... Not Tobey.
So, when they announced that The ‘Amazing’ Spider-Man was a re-boot and an origin story, my heart sank.  It’s only ten years since we had to go through all this with Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire.  Do we really have to sit through the bullying, the spider-bite, Uncle Ben’s death and yacketty-schmatty, blah-blah-blah all over again?  Yes, it seems we do and we can’t even do it quickly.  We have to spend fully half of this two and a quarter hour movie revisiting familiar ground.

They’ve taken much of their inspiration from Brian Bendis’ ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ reboot of the comic which began to be published in 2000, rather than the Stan Lee / Steve Ditko original which dates from 1962.  Raimi very-much cleaved to the original in terms of tone, so to go elsewhere was a sensible way to push the franchise forward.  Except, since the differences are mostly cosmetic, why bother going back to square one?  That still makes no sense to me.  Can you tell?

Andrew Garfield’s rendition of Peter is quirkier and more physical than Maguire’s.  He’s more temperamental and more argumentative and, therefore, possibly more convincing as the sarcastic wise-cracking Web-Head.  Maguire always seemed too sweet and earnest to do the trade-mark Spidey one-liners I grew up reading in the comics.  But you only get a couple of examples of this humour in this film.  So, not really The Amusing Spider-Man, then.

When he is learning to use his new powers and dealing with his sometimes-sticky, sometimes-not fingers and proportional-strength-of-a-spider (as they used to call it) Garfield is very funny – He obviously has a gift for physical comedy, even if he is a bit to lanky and good-looking to prat-fall convincingly.  But his emotions are on-and-off so quickly, it is difficult to become emotionally involved in him.  This is not necessarily a fault of the performance so much as the frantic pace of the editing and the brevity of such scenes.

Gwen Stacy ... She loves a man to have his heart on his sleeve ... And his blood too.
Then you’ve got the fact that they have decided to have Gwen (played by Emma Stone) be the focus of his affections instead of Mary-Jane.  This is being true to the original 60s comics that they are, otherwise, ignoring.  So why bother making the change?  To be fair to Stone – her rendition of Gwen is far less annoying than Bryce Howard’s was in Spider-Man 3 (2007).  The lengthy scenes with them stumbling through their courtship … Just don’t sparkle.  There is no spark between the two characters.  I didn’t care about them, or their relationship. 

Visually, the film is quite dark, shot mostly at night with deliberately subdued colours … Which are even dimmer in 3D, of course.  I presume this palette and shooting style was part of abandoning the light-hearted tone of the Raimi films and an attempt to make this new rendition seem grittier.  More ‘street’.   However, the frankly lame story contrives to make that seem foolish.

Where the first half was unnecessarily long-winded, the second half leaps from half-formed plot-point to plot-point with scant regard for logic or continuity.  Plot-lines are abandoned or just plain forgotten about, time-jumps occur without warning (Connors all-of-a-sudden has a lab in the sewers) and major details are skated over in a montage (such as the creation of the web-shooters and the creation of the costume and the existence of the Spider-Sense).

Youth perfects world's least impressive high-wire act.
But, beyond that, there are the frequent plot contrivances.  If this is supposed to be Spider-Man re-imagined for a more sophisticated twenty-first century audience, why are we insulted by the sort of lame co-incidences and conveniences that we might have expected to have seen in the 70s TV version of Spider-Man?

Plot Contrivance #1:  Peter investigates Connors, who just happens to be his father’s ex-partner and, it is strongly hinted, is the reason for his father’s disappearance.

Plot Contrivance #2:  Gwen just happens to be Connor’s Intern (that’ll come in useful).

Plot Contrivance #3:  Peter just happens to bump into Mr. Ratha, who just happens to drop a folder containing papers which just happen have the 00 logo Peter is investigating from his father’s notes.

Plot Contrivance #4:  Peter’s father bred the spiders that will turn him into a super-hero.

Plot Contrivance #5:  Connors just happens to have a ‘Ganali Device’ designed to distribute drugs through the air over an entire city.  Well that won’t be turned to nefarious ends at the end of the film!

I could go on and so, since my 1,000th word happens to be this one, and I have therefore failed, I shall go on!

You've got to hand it to him.  What?   What?  As jokes go, that was fairly armless.
Rhys Ifans plays Connors.  He’s not the most endearing of actors … His characters always seem to be cold and emotionless and that stops you liking them (unless they’re in grubby Y-fronts, of course).  He is to-all-intents-and-purposes playing the same role as Willem Dafoe in the 2002 Spider-Man and Alfred Molina in the 2004 sequel – the scientist driven mad by his own creation.  Boiler-plate Jekyll-and-Hyde stuff, in other words! 

His motives are, essentially, noble, although he has clearly made the old deal-with-The-Devil, in the form of the afore-mentioned Mr Ratha who represents the unseen Norman Osborn.  The Connors of the comics was always a tragic character rather than out-and-out evil.  There is the merest hint of that here, given that his research is primarily a way for him to grow himself a new arm.  Which it does.  But that, of course, is not all he grows.  The first transformation into The Lizard is dealt with well, in the traditional Jekyll-and-Hyde manner, but the creature into which he changes reminded me of nothing so much a Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).


The first time he and Spider-man meet – on the bridge – is the stand-out sequence in the film and is the only time Garfield has the on-screen soul that Maguire so effortlessly demonstrated.

So, there are one-or-two laugh-out-loud jokes for the humorously-challenged (the teenagers sitting around me were laughing like drains … I smiled occasionally), there are impressive visuals and one-or-two moments that set the senses buzzing.  But there is also a lot of padding, a lot of problems with tone, a lot of insulting the audience’s intelligence and memory and, ultimately, far, far, far too much time spent showing us scenes we can vividly remember from last time round.

We were promised ‘The Untold Story’.  What we got instead was ‘The Oft-Better-Told Story’.  What they should have done (had they but asked my advice) is go with the Amazing title (rather than Spider-Man 4), cast a new director and a new actor, but carried on.  Sure, change the tone, that’s fine … That happens in the comic every time a new creative team takes over, that’s to be expected … But going back to square one and starting again?  That was unnecessary and foolish … And boring.

"Cowabunga, dude".  Oh, sorry, wrong reptile.
And so, finally, we get to my favourite bugbear … The 3D.  Well, given that the colours were washed out and the night scenes were distractingly dim … I took my 3D glasses off, which immediately improved the colour and brightness I was seeing.  But, interestingly, for the vast majority of the film, this made no difference.  When you watch a 3D film without glasses, it should be blurred.  Unwatchable.  Yet The (self-styled) Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t.  The long-shots were a bit blurred, the fight-scenes and web-slinging scenes were extremely blurred (I put the glasses back on for these) but I’d say that, for a good 80% of the film, watching without glasses made absolutely no difference.  So much for expensive, cutting-edge 3D technology.

There has already been some very detailed analysis of this film and I would point you to the piece, which deals with some of the plot-threads that were left dangling from the film, and uses some of the footage released in the trailers to illustrate that this material was shot, but obviously chopped out.  (Which makes one wonder if we’re going to be treated to a three-hour ‘Director’s Cut’).  Anyway, it is on Badass Digest and you’ll find it here.

Then the second piece I’d like you to read is one of Cinema Blend’s excellent ‘To 3D Or Not To 3D’ columns where they spell out far more methodically than I, what’s wrong with the extra dimension in this film.  You’ll find that piece here.

Right, well that’s 1,600 words of my first 1,000 word review.  Bugger.  Must try harder!

1,600 words?  Hang your head in shame!