With suited-up actors playing 12-foot Martians in locations based on Earth's natural sights, this is a triumph for old-style film-making that could make its competitors look prehistoric
Disney's John Carter adaptation goes back to the future of film
Guardian ~ November 14, 2011
Every time I write about John Carter, I find myself wanting to sell it to you. Usually, writing this blog requires a careful suppression of my naturally benevolent attitude towards fantasy fare in the knowledge that most of these movies don't end up being half as great as we expect them to be. But Disney's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars books is such a preposterous proposition – the opener to a mega-budget franchise, directed by a first-time live-action film-maker, set on a Mars that doesn't remotely resemble the real red planet and based on a series of books from a weird outdated genre which hardly anyone has read – that I can't help rooting for it.
One gets the impression that director Andrew Stanton, the Pixar dude who helped create Wall-E and Finding Nemo, has the same feeling about the film. Earlier this year I spent time at the studio's Oakland HQ hearing how plans for John Carter were progressing with a small group of US- and UK-based writers. Last week I found myself listening to Stanton talk about the project once again with a larger European-based selection of bloggers and film journalists in London. Disney really wants us to like this movie.
Stanton screened a number of clips from the film, possibly the best of which – a segue showing US army soldiers trying to persuade Taylor Kitsch's Carter (in battered Confederate uniform) to sign up to the new fighting force – didn't even take place on Mars. There were scenes in which Carter is thrown in with a gaggle of alien babies – offspring of the "green Martians", or Tharks – who battle for supremacy with humanoid "red Martians" on the planet. Carter also meets an alien dog-type creature that seems to be his companion for much of the movie. Finally we saw a segment in which Carter battles some more green Martians, this time from a more primitive tribe. The film so far has the feel of an adventure in the spirit of the great 1930s serials (with all the baffling pseudo-sci-fi silliness this entails) and the 70s and 80s movies like Star Wars and Flash Gordon that drew inspiration from them.
With a number of 12-foot tall, four-armed talking aliens to portray, Stanton has been working to avoid the kind of wooden acting that afflicted those who worked opposite CG characters in the Star Wars prequels. Yesterday he spoke extensively about recruiting actors of the calibre of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church. They play the alien Tharks, which required all three to act in mo-cap suits, on giant green stilts, in the 110 degree heat of the Utah desert.
"I had spent most of my life imagining what it would be like to talk to these characters, and I wanted it to be instinctive," said Stanton. "I felt that if the actor was really there looking into the eyes of the other actor – the human one – you would sense it ... So we actually put the characters on stilts in motion-captured grey pyjamas with these helmets and cameras they used on Avatar pointing towards their faces. It was a very odd-looking set. You would have the actor really there, you would have these guys on stilts representing Tharks and you would have people in green gimpsuits making sure they didn't fall over and hurt themselves. Some days on the shoot I sat there and thought: 'What the hell am I doing?' But man did it pay off, and if we were to shoot another one tomorrow I would do exactly the same."
"The instincts that we were able to document, and then were able to transfer to the animators ... spoke volumes. Often it was a case of what the actors did not do. You didn't realise it was interesting just to watch somebody just stand there and not do anything. And you would never have the guts to do that as an animator. As an animator you would think, 'I'm being paid to do this', and then start overacting. You see what Willem did: Willem did nothing. He had the confidence of an actor in that role to know to do nothing, which helped keep everything grounded."
In terms of scale, John Carter is way beyond epic, and is going to require a spectacular suspension of disbelief from any audience that goes to see it. It's been almost a century since anyone sensible believed in the possibility of intelligent life on Mars, and I'm not sure anyone ever rated the concept of astral projection – by which Carter is transferred from one planet to another – as serious science. So it's hardly surprising that Stanton is going out on a limb to ensure that the inhabitants of the world he's created appear as genuine as possible.
The cities and buildings of Mars are also based on real locations in the US desert, with ornate dwelling places and crumbling alien facades superimposed on to them via CGI. John Carter has a very different – I would say more natural – look to it than the Star Wars prequels, whose use of all-CG environments saw them lose a lot of the original, Earth-filmed trilogy's vivacity and charm.
"I thought: how do we show a planet that's older than ours that's dying? So we found places on Earth and with a little bit of photoshopping we would turn them into man-made structures," said Stanton. "Your eyes are seeing more that is real than is fakery. That turned out to be a huge win."
Whether John Carter achieves victory when it arrives in cinemas next March remains to be seen. Stanton says he already has ideas for sequels – there were 11 books in the original Rice Burroughs series after all, with this movie based mainly on the first, A Princess of Mars. As a potential franchise, this dwarfs even Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series.
It's pretty obvious that filming the project has taken everyone involved out of their comfort zones. With a little bit of luck, John Carter may do the same for audiences. One thing's for sure: in at least one sense, it's going to be out of this world.
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