The Lessons of John Carter?

The box-office misfire/disaster of John Carter would seem to have put an abrupt halt to what may have been a great series of movies the likes of which we haven’t seen since the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s a weird thing, movie Box Office; stuff like the Transformers films and the Pirates of The Carribean films seem to go from strength to strength, their popularity and box-office success almost at odds with their quality, wheras films like John Carter seem to sink without trace.  John Carter is not a bad movie. It may not be perfect, but its not as bad as some would make out. Infact, contrary to ‘popular’ opinion as it may be, I absolutely loved the movie. Its the most fun I’ve had with a fantasy adventure movie in years, and the Blu-ray is one of my best-buys of this year so far. It’s a magical movie, a throwback to the halcyon days of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I really think its that good. 

Trouble is, much of the time the perceived artistic worth or value of a film is tied to its box office.  I remember when Blade Runner bombed bigtime back in 1982; the film disappeared into a critical black hole, only to raise its head again with its release on home video. Nowadays it’s no longer the ‘cult’ film it used to be; it’s become decidedly mainstream to the extent I sometimes yearn for the good old days when it was the best-kept secret of a chosen few. I don’t expect John Carter to ever get the critical kudos that Blade Runner eventually gained, but I’m sure it’s due a reappraisal someday. Someday too late of course, for those of us who would have loved to have seen a Gods Of Mars movie.

Wiser people than me -and many of them working in Hollywood no doubt- will have examined the failure of John Carter and analysed the various theories about its crash and burn at the box office. Was it released at the wrong time? Was it simply a marketing issue? Was it the casting? The ‘unknown’ intellectual property? Was it Hollywood politics? Was it the power of the critics? Was its simply a bad movie? Well, I don’t think that last one’s an option, although many clearly seemed to have a problem with the film. It’s just such a fascinating thing to wonder about. I mean, when a film like the Conan remake fails, then yes, its hardly a surprise, its just simply a result of it being a bad movie. If the second or third Transformers film had tanked, it would have been understandable; I mean, a script would have been handy for either of them, but the public didn’t seem to mind as long as there was plenty of eye-candy fx etc.

Is John Carter really any worse than Avatar? After all, they are very similar in subject. As well as being ‘inspired’ by Dances With Wolves, there’s plenty of the Barsoom novels (and Almuric, for that matter) in James Cameron’s opus.  There is just the same over-reliance on cg effects and spectacle as John Carter has been damned for. Yet Avatar ‘clicked’ and became the biggest film of all time. Yes, the ‘new’ gimick that was 3D likely assisted with Avatar‘s success, something a little tired by the time John Carter came around (I actually have a theory that with some films now, the 3D is actually a liability, as the additional ticket price more often than not puts people off completely).

For me, perhaps the most sobering lesson regards John Carter’s dismal performance is that it puts some credence on the Studio’s preference for known intellectual properties, or ‘star billing’. It’s easier to sell a blockbuster based on a comic or tv series or a toy, than it is to sell something original or based on a fairly obscure book. It’s easier to sell a film with a star than it is a relative unknown. Maybe Hollywood is right, the way it makes movies now. I hate it. I hate that it’s acceptable to pay an actor something like $50 million dollars- I think that kind of money is frankly obscene. Particularly when the studio is paying less for actual ‘acting’ than it is some guy going through the motions as a larger than life, frankly cartoon character as Johnny Depp plays in the POTC movies.  I’d like to see more original fair than more sequels, but maybe Hollywood is right afterall?

Maybe the real lesson, if it is one, is that both views are wrong. A film can be great and still not connect with the public, and no matter how popular the intellectual property is or expensive the actor, its all something of a crapshoot in the end- nobody really knows what will succeed/connect with the main populace and what won’t. I hope the film-makers behind John Carter find some reward in the fact that some people, minority it may be, really loved the film.

One more observation, that I’ll get into further when I get around to reviewing John Carter proper, is that watching the film, it seemed obvious to me that it was everything the Star Wars prequels should have been.  Actually, perhaps more than that, it was everything the Star Wars prequels wanted to be, as so much of John Carter reminded me of stuff in those Star Wars prequels, but executed better. It felt like a really good Star Wars movie, the way they were made back in the Original Trilogy days- sort of like an Original Trilogy Star Wars with cg effects, if that makes sense?

So anyway, John Carter is a really good movie, and if you’ve been put off by all the negativity and Box Office troubles, then give it a go, you may be very surprised, as I was.  Hell, even the score is fantastic, John-Williams-in-his-pomp era stuff.  Now excuse me, I’m off to Barsoom again, time to load up the Blu-ray…

“Almuric” by Robert E Howard

“Esau Cairn left the planet of his birth, for a world swimming afar in space, alien, aloof, strange.”

In the body of work written by REH, Almuric, republished here in another fine REHFP hardback edition,  stands out as being one of his very few novel-length works and also for its pulp sci-fi theme, as compared to his generally fantasy/western/boxing-orientated work.  Inspired by the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of John Carter on Mars, it’s clearly an attempt by REH to break into a new market. Written during 1936, it is, frankly, one of his lesser works, as REH is clearly distracted by real-world events that would lead to his suicide. His relationship with Novalyne Price had finally come to its long drawn-out end, and his terminally-ill mother was nearing her last days. Indeed the story remained unfinished (completed, it is believed,  by Otto Binder, a friend of Howard’s agent Otis Kline,  following REH’s death and serialised in Weird Tales in 1939).  One can only imagine what it might have been, had the REH who wrote with the lush wordcraft of The Shadow Kingdom or the better Conan tales produced it instead. As it is, it’s a fine, rip-roaring adventure with plenty of action but it lacks the craft of his better work, both in the grammar and detail, and in the general world-building. Considering everything going on at the time though, its a miracle he managed anything of this quality at all.

Even second-rate REH is better than most, though. It’s just unfortunate that it’s clearly a great piece limited by it being written in that nightmare period near the end of Howard’s life when he just couldn’t devote sufficient time and care on it. Much of the action and sweeping rush of the tale carries the old REH hallmark, and there is plenty of REH himself in the hero of the piece, Esau Cairn. Here is a man born out of time, who doesn’t belong in our modern world, who is transported to the far-off world Almuric where he finds life, harsh and dangerous as it is, more suited to him. There are echoes here of REH himself, disenfranchised from the general populace of Cross Plains, Texas, where he lived something of an outcast, an oddball.  Is there wish-fulfillment here in the life Cairn finds on Almuric, where he finds a beautiful mate, kinship with a savage but noble people? Is it more than just a simple story for a new market, more one final fantasy of escape when his life was dragging him down into suicidal thoughts? It’s a fascinating subtext to the story.

Alas, with the reality of life rushing blackly over him, REH couldn’t write with his genuine skill and poetic landscapes of his best  prose. Some of it is atually painful- the evil winged creatures the Yaga dwell in a black citadel of Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river Yogh, in the land of Yagg, creatured ruled by an evil queen named Yasmeena. It’s clearly rushed, lazily-thought out. It just needs another draft or the attention to wordcraft of his better work. In the hands of someone like Clark Ashton Smith, say, it might have even soared.  But taking into account what was happening to REH in 1936, its understandable. I actually enjoyed it, re-reading it again so many years after buying a slim second-hand paperback copy that languishes in my loft somewhere. It left me feeling a little sad, considering how its failings likely indicated REH’s state of mind and his life at the time he attempted it. Had he lived and properly finished it, tided it up, it might have been a great book and the start of another series of REH stories. Because more than anything else, I would have loved to see REH tell of more adventures of Esau Cairn, I would have loved to read them.

Alien (one more time before Prometheus)

 My favourite scene fron ALIEN is surely it’s most iconic- the craneshot pulling back from Kane as he rises up into the vast chamber and the reveal of the Space Jockey. Over the many years that I have watched this scene, the Space Jockey has been a source of constant mystery and wonder, both the Space Jockey and the derelict are Alien, unexplained.

Is it a gunner, or a pilot? Where does the creature end and the mechanism begin? How many centuries has it lain there, waiting to be discovered? Where does it come from? Is it a victim of the Alien lifeform as its outward twisted bones would suggest? Is the Alien native to this planetoid or the derelict ship? The questions have rattled around in the heads of fans of the film for decades. The sense of the unknown and alien is captivating, a stroke of genius by the film-makers, whether it was deliberate or not. It never needs explaining.

But PROMETHEUS, as the tantalisng trailers suggest, will change all that. Rightly or wrongly, I cannot say- it depends on how the film turns out and thats still a few weeks away. But I’m certainly conflicted on it. What cannot be argued however is that, after watching PROMETHEUS next month, watching the original ALIEN will never be the same again. The mysteries will be largely, perhaps completely, explained; the nature of the Space Jockey, its alien craft. Next time I see Kane climb up that wall into that chamber, the experience will be different. What I fear is that the scene will be lessened; indeed, it is hard to imagine any alternative. Even if PROMETHEUS turns out to be a work of genius, how can it not lessen the impact and mystery of that Space Jockey reveal?

A few nights ago I watched ALIEN again in a conscious effort to experience it one last time before PROMETHEUS, well, possibly spoils everything, at the very least changes everything. It’s still one hell of a movie. My wife remarked that it didn’t look like a film some 33 years old. Thats true and yet also untrue- in some ways it doesn’t betray its age, and it does indeed largely still hold up, but in other ways its utterly unlike contemporary films. Its middle-aged cast, its slow, deliberate pace, the ‘real’ sets grounded in reality, how it leaves so many things unexplained- in these respects it’s obviously an older movie, and better for it. And it has that haunting score by the great Jerry Goldsmith, such a major part of the movie- sadly Goldsmith is another lost great and the loss of his music is a constant vacumn to modern films. I wonder if, were he still alive, he might have scored PROMETHEUS? I wonder what that film score would have sounded like.  One of those great ‘what ifs?’ isn’t it.

One of the things I am most curious about PROMETHEUS is in how Ridley Scott’s approach to film-making, returning to the sci-fi genre after so many years, has changed over the years- chiefly regards the pace of the new film, how he constructs his shots, how he uses the new cg tools. And the 3D of course; I don’t like 3D, but the idea of Scott using it is so tempting (I haven’t decided to watch it in 3D or 2D yet).

I wonder, also, what Dan O’Bannon would have thought of it, had he lived to see this new film. Thats one of the saddest things about all this. Like Philip K Dick never seeing the completed BLADE RUNNER, it’s such a pity that O’Bannon will never see PROMETHEUS. I realise O’Bannon wasn’t the sole creator of ALIEN, or involved in the making of the film to any major context, but the original premise was his baby, and I believe Giger was his suggestion for designing the creature. It would have been so neat for O’Bannon to see PROMETHEUS and give his opinion of it, it’s something I would have loved to have seen.

I remember, way back in 1979, reading an interview with O’Bannon in Fantastic Films, before the film came out. I remember being utterly gobsmacked by the pictures from the film and reading O’Bannon talking about the original script, and the making of the movie. During one bit he aluded to the Chestburster scene, but, bless him, he wouldn’t go into it because he didn’t want to spoil it for first-time viewers… I was re-reading that interview the other day and I read that part, and I thought, wow, can you imagine a time when that chestburster scene, so infamous now, was still a secret? That filmgoers could see the film and not know what the hell they were going to see when Kane doubles-up in agony at the dining table?  That summer seems such a long time ago. I remember reading articles about ALIEN in Fantastic Films, Starburst, all the mags of the day. Without the internet, you could keep secrets and spoliers  away from Joe Public so much easier. In some ways, things were better back then. You have to work so hard to avoid stuff nowadays.  I’ve noticed you can already download the PROMETHEUS soundtrack from itunes, hear it on youtube, with the tracklist and everything, ‘spoiling’ a bit more of PROMETHEUS.

Avengers Assemble

Here’s a question for UK geeks out there- which of  the UK comics of the 1970s that reprinted Marvel’s comics of the 1960s onwards featured The Avengers? I remember Spiderman Comics Weekly contained Spiderman, Iron Man and Thor. I seem to remember the Mighty World of Marvel comic contained Hulk, Fantastic Four and, I believe, Dr.Strange. But The Avengers? When did they get into the mix (becaue I distinctly recall reading them)? Was it The Silver Surfer comic from sometime around 1975? I can’t recall. Must be old age. Worst thing I ever did was give away all those old comics. I couldn’t wait for every Saturday to come around with my copy of Spiderman Comics Weekly pushed through the letterbox. Weekends like that couldn’t be beat- Hammer horror film on a Friday night, and my favourite comic early the next morning.

So Avengers Assemble– well, The Avengers everywhere else, it seems, but as we Brits get it confused with a sixties cult tv show apparently, we are stuck with ‘Assemble’ at the end. Pity, as Avengers Assemble will make a great title in every other territory for the inevitable sequel (beats Avengers 2 anyway).  In some ways The Avengers is the unlikeliest comicbook movie of them all. Too much of a comic geek’s wet dream to be possibly real. I mean, sure, Spiderman, Daredevil, Hulk, all those ‘solo’ superhero movies… fine as most of them are, it’s one thing to make a film with one hero to deal with (and lets face it, many struggle just with that), but to somehow juggle several superheroes in one film? Its got shambolic mess written all over it. Part of the ‘knowing’ humor of Watchmen is how daft the superheroes look lined up for their group photos, and the X-Men movies buckled under the strain with each sequel.

But somehow this film, against all odds, pulls it off with considerable aplomb. Indeed, its enough to make one giddy how well elements from the Thor and Captain America films dovetail so neatly into the Avengers plot, particularly the Tesseract. The way we are brought up to speed with the current fortunes of all of the seperate heroes, and how they are brought together, is all confidently done, as is the return of Loki and the threat that the world faces. It should be such a huge sprawling mess saved by big effects sequences- you know, like how most blockbusters are. But there are real character arcs here, great acting, wonderful dialogue and humor, a few interesting twists and turns. Maybe it sags a little midway through but its certainly redeemed by the huge last hour, which is simply a comicbook fans greatest dream come true.  Or Transformers:Dark Side of The Moon with a script, as that is what it generally looks like. In some ways similarities to that Transformers film are inevitable and unfortunate, but anyone who read the 1960s Marvel comics will tell you, that New York skyline is an utterly iconic Marvel image, particularly in huge battles. I kept thinking back to the ‘Coming of Galactus’ storyline from The Fantastic Four… that last hour of Avengers Assemble is like a love letter to the great Jack Kirby.   

Fantastic stuff. Like Thor last May, a great surprise and I just wonder if this summers further blockbusters can live up to it? To think we’ve got Prometheus, the next Dark Knight movie and the Spiderman reboot to follow. Frightening.

Dracula Prince Of Darkness (1966)

Re-released this week in a corrected Blu-ray (there were audio synch problems with the initial batch), Dracula Prince Of Darkness is pretty much the definitive Hammer horror film. Released in 1966, it’s a belated sequel to Hammer’s 1958 hit Dracula (or Horror of Dracula in the USA), a film that cleverly adapted Bram Stoker’s classic into a slick, pacy horror romp.  Footage of the finale of Dracula is shown in a pre-title sequence to refresh viewers of a film released eight years before. It must be remembered that this was in a world with no VHS/DVD etc, so public consciousness of a film released eight years before could not be taken for granted as it would be today (or, indeed, as it will be when Avatar 2 gets released several years from now).

I don’t know what the current general consensus is about these Hammer films, whether they are well-regarded now as classics or dismissed as low-budget, camp British b-movies, and to be honest I don’t care. I guess it really depends on how old you are. As a kid growing up in England in the fairly grim 1970s I watched Hammer films on tv’s Friday night horror seasons, thrilled and horrified and, yes, often titillated, by them all.  Gothic locations, rich colour palettes, low budgets, thrilling scores, beautiful ladies, Hammer films had a style of horror pretty much all their own. A program of restorations and definitive Blu-ray releases has recently commenced, and to have them restored in HD is wonderful.  In the case of this edition of DPOD, compared to the superlative Quatermass & The Pit Blu-ray of several months ago, expectations have to be lowered a little due to technical issues. DPOD was shot in Techniscope, a process that produced a 2.35:1 picture by using only half of the standard 35mm frame. This obviously limits picture quality somewhat, but nevertheless the film looks better here than it ever has.

And it remains a very effective horror film. The sequence in which Helen (another wonderfully nuanced performance by the great Barbara Shelley) wanders into Dracula’s crypt to find her dead husband hanging from the ceiling, drained of blood above the vampires tomb is genuinely shocking, as is the shot a little while later when Charles  enters the crypt and he sees the deathly-pale arm of Helen hanging out of a trunk as if casually dumped there. I don’t know why, but both scenes actually disturbed me and do still when thinking about it. This may well be due to Terence Fisher’s sedate direction, and the films slow but eerily effective pace as the horrors gently ramp up. Compared to the tight cutting and frenzied rush typical of most modern horror films, this is refreshing indeed and a reminder of how good old horror movies are despite their often low budgets, and limited fx quality. Matte paintings look like matte painting, dodgy sets often look, well, like dodgy sets and the blood often looks, well, like rich red paint, but it’s all part of a disarming charm. There is, indeed, something irresistible about having a flimisly-clad mature woman (by which I mean a woman in her thirties as opposed to some teenage pouting girl) standing by a gothic window from beyond which thunder rolls intolling certain doom, or everyday-looking heroes that aren’t muscle-bound and gorgeous and very, very young.  There is a reality about it, and yet also a dreamlike aspect to the gothic feel.  Scenes of Alan exploring the nighttime Castle, the camera prowling with him, recalled the scenes of Brett in Alien as he searched the Nostromo’s engineering deck for the cat.  This is old-fashioned, nervy horror, all expectation and dread, knowing something bad is sure to happen, but when, and how? Compare it to modern horror which is pretty much all shocks and little anticipation. Maybe modern audiences are to impatient, and too sanguine about Hammer-levels of gore. Their loss I think.

Dracula Prince of Darkness is a great horror movie, and I’m looking forward to settling down in the fine company of Lee, Shelley, Matthews and Farmer with their cast commentary that is one of a number of extras on the disc. Another very fine catalogue title on Blu-ray.