If there's one thing sci-fi and fantasy films have taught us, it is that one is not to fight his/her destiny. Father Steve Grunow continues to give in to his as our resident "B" (or worse) movie guru. Today he tackles two, um, interesting selections on the Word on Fire blog.
I was approached by a parishioner after Mass this past Sunday who commented that they had discovered that I wrote film reviews for a website called Word on Fire. “Yes,” I replied. “It’s too bad,” the well meaning soul responded, “that the movies you seem to review aren’t very good and don’t seem to do all that well.” I responded that we all find our niche in life.
My penchant for reviews of bad movies with bad to mediocre box office payouts continues with “John Carter,” a $300 million box office failure that has shaken the foundations of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Disney will foot the bill for this cinematic disaster, which, in my estimation, is not so much a bad movie, but one that just has failed to find or resonate with its audience.
The story of “John Carter” is based on fantasy stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs that were first published in 1917—the first titled “The Princess of Mars.” The series gave rise to a version of science fiction/fantasy known as “planetary romance,” and is the precursor to a whole panoply of offerings ranging from “Dune” to “Star Wars” to “Avatar.” More about this later.
“John Carter” takes place in the 19th century and features the adventures of a battle weary Civil War veteran, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch of “Friday Night Lights” fame). He is being pursued by Apaches in the American Southwest, takes refuge in a cave, and finds himself in a scuffle with a space travelling being called a Thern. The Thern has a medallion that transports Carter to Mars (or, as the planet is known by the locals, “Barsoom”).
It is there on Mars that Carter discovers he can leap tall rock formations or advancing armies with a single bound, and can do so while dressed in what amounts to underpants, without anyone on Mars snickering. In fact, they are all mighty impressed, and look for ways to leverage Carter’s leaping and fighting skills to their advantage. The problem for Carter and his Martian hosts is that after the personal losses he suffered as a result of the Civil War, he really isn’t interested in a fight—what he wants is to find a way back home.
The film includes fierce creatures, a beautiful princess in distress, machines that flit and float through the air like dragonflies, thrilling chases, fisticuffs, and dramatic otherworldly vistas. There is no lack of visual stimuli in the movie, but the problem is that very little of it is all that memorable. The reason for this likely is perplexing to the film’s makers.
I think that the issue is that though Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story is actually the progenitor of an entire genre of science fiction/fantasy that has now been presented for decades in popular culture, the movie based on this grandfather of them all seems derivative and unoriginal. Too many variations have passed down this river since Burroughs introduced the culture to this genre and as a result the source has become overwhelmed and muddied. We can’t look back and see “John Carter” as being unique in its storyline or its visuals. The plot and imagery that decades ago provoked the shock of “new” has lost its charge.
I found my mind wandering throughout the movie, lost not in the imaginary world of Barsoom, but in the fact that the guy who played the dad in “Malcolm in the Middle” makes an appearance at the beginning of the film, and I counted three actors from the HBO series “Rome” in the cast. Both those shows were so good, I mused to myself. I also found myself wondering at one point if the character John Carter needed some sunscreen. My musings were likely not what the makers of the film had in mind for their audience.
There is a less than implicit pseudo-Christology in “John Carter” that is slightly intriguing. It is not just the initials of the title character, but that he is sent to a civilization in crisis from another world. It becomes clear that those who encounter him are compelled to make a decision as to whether he is a liar or a lunatic or truly who he claims to be. He also finds himself to be the means by which reconciliation with old enemies is accomplished, and that dark powers that have wreaked havoc through cunning and insinuation from time immemorial are defeated. The film even ends with Carter, presumed to be dead, actually very much alive.
The allusions to Christ ultimately falter as Carter employs violence as the means to defeat his enemies, but the story that underlies his story is not just derived from Burroughs, but from a narrative much older. Too
bad the makers of the movie couldn’t have leveraged this to their advantage—or maybe they didn’t see it as an advantage at all. I am told that the Burroughs series upon which “John Carter” is based contains a harsh commentary on the evils of religion, but heck, we live in an era when a Christian can become a celebrity by announcing on YouTube that he loves Jesus and hates religion.
The makers of John Carter should have realized that this was their moment to capitalize on the new ethos of the Christian market—J.C.: Yes! Weird Martian religions: No!
John Carter can jump, which reminds me of another bad movie. “21 Jump Street” stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as two inept officers of the law whose inability to remember to read villains their Miranda rights leads to their assignment to an undercover unit that infiltrates local high schools and keeps upstanding young people safe from criminals in their midst. The premise is as ridiculous as it sounds, except this film, unlike the cheesy TV series from the 1980’s on which it is based, is in on the joke.
The movie contains enough bawdiness, explicit language, violence and adult situations to earn it the distinction of being morally offensive and worthy of condemnation by the Catholic film office, but I will say in its defense that it is also pretty darn funny. The story is, in its own twisted way, about how the experience of high school is akin to John Carter’s sudden transportation to Mars, but without getting any of the super powers. Adults may at times imagine re-entry into their high school selves knowing what they know now and having bodies that are fully formed. Hill’s and Tatum’s characters have this opportunity, only to find their expectations overturned.
The highlights of this movie are Tatum’s deadpan expressions and laconic responses as he comes to terms with the harsh truth that though he was once one of the cool kids, time and circumstance have now positioned him at the bottom of the high school hierarchy. Hill, however, the ubernerd par excellence, is at the pinnacle of cool.
It is all very funny, and now having admitted in a public forum that I have not only seen it, but actually enjoyed much of it, I will hang my head in shame and retreat to the corner. Yes, I know, I know, priests should have better things to do than see movies like “21 Jump Street.”
Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.