If Disney had kept the much more alluring title ‘John Carter Of Mars’ instead of hacking off the last bit and just keeping the dude’s name, I feel like Andrew Stanton’s John Carter would have had a better chance in marketing and taken flight, because it’s not even near as bad a film as people would have you believe. In fact, it’s a gorgeous, beautifully told, elaborate retro science fiction dream and a flat out great film. I suppose it’s kind of like Waterworld, where a film tanks so badly that people start to confuse bad numbers with bad quality and a whole negative stigma is whipped up around it. Speaking of Waterworld, another great film, John Carter bears similarities in production design and visual atmosphere, albeit set on Mars for most of the duration. Based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs believed to be some of the earliest works of literary SciFi, Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter, an ex Civil War badass who finds himself whisked away to Mars through a dimensional cave portal out in the desert, propelled on an adventure with warring clans, giant alien yeti beasts, a princess (Lynn Collins), humanoid extraterrestrials led by a green Willem Dafoe, an adorable little dog/toad/road-runner animal and more. This is one of those old school epics that doesn’t just hire a few leads and a gaggle of supporting players but turns a whole casting agency upside down, shakes it and signs any actors that fall out, and as a result we get a jaw dropping lineup that includes Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Jon Favreau, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Mark Strong, Don Stark, Bryan Cranston as a crusty cavalry general and Dominic West in full Shakespeare mode as an evil Martian prince. Oh, Ross from Friends is apparently in there somewhere too but I’ve never been able to spot him, keep your eyes peeled though. The plot at base level is a fish out of water story as John adjusts to the planet (seeing him mess around with the gravitational field is so much fun), bonds with Dafoe and his tribe of Tharks, takes on giant furry Pokémon things in an intergalactic gladiator arena and casts his gaze starward, wondering if he’ll ever see his blue planet again. A few convoluted subplots get in the way including Mark Strong’s weird metaphysical warlock priest dude, but for the most part this a propulsive, rollicking, operatic space adventure with special effects that won’t quit and a real sense of wonder. Why this flopped so bad is anyone’s guess and it’s a shame because when this happens people tend to focus more on the event of its release and that perceived failure more than the film itself, and the legacy gets clouded. Forget the losses a studio with billions in couch change ‘suffered,’ forget any bad press or skewed marketing and just enjoy the film on its own, because it’s one for the ages.
Few films successfully balance story, character, emotion, action and special effects on a scale as grand as Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which I saw for the first time last night and am still reeling from. It’s brilliant, intelligent science fiction, a labyrinthine murder mystery, complex detective story and a thunderous action movie all rolled together in a perfectly pitched recipe, probably as close to flawless as you can find. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, Spielberg world-builds fantastically around the concept of ‘Pre-Cogs’, neurologically damaged clairvoyants who can predict murders before they happen and have been put to work in Washington DC of 2054, where Lexus hover cars jet along vertical freeways, mad doctors replace eyeballs in a grimy shanty town flophouses, holograms dance about and there hasn’t been a single murder in six years, which is all about to change. It’s a startlingly complex, succinct version of the future where every bell and whistle serves the story instead of being simple gaudy arbitration to flaunt the studio’s money showboating across the screen. Tom Cruise gives a focused, implosive turn as John Anderton, chief of the high tech PreCrime unit, tasked with taking the PreCog’s readings and implementing force to ensure that these future murders never take place, that is until his very own name comes down the tube and he’s propelled on an odyssey to clear his name, smoke out elusive corruption and put ghosts of the past to rest in several different cases. Talk about an eclectic cast of actors supporting him, with standouts including Max Von Sydow as the grandfatherly director of the program, Lois Smith as an eccentric botanist with ties to the past, Kathryn Morris as Anderson’s intuitive ex wife, Colin Farrell as a sharp federal agent who both hinders and helps Anderton’s cause, Peter Stormare positively devouring scenery as aforementioned mad doctor, Tim Blake Nelson as a chatty prison warden, Neal McDonough and Patrick Kilpatrick as fellow PreCrime cops and Samantha Morton who almost walks off with the film in an arresting portrayal of angelic, animalistic PreCog Agatha, whose gifted brain holds power to unlock the past. The central mystery of the film is deep, broad and filled with hairpin turns you don’t see coming, it’s noirish in the way it unfolds but slick and streamlined in design, like all the best retro futurism I can think of, this now included. Better still is the fierce, uncompromising emotional centre where it finds gravity, particularly in a heartbreaking scene where Agatha enlightens John and his wife to their own pain, hers and that of those in the past she is trying to find retribution for, it’s a devastating sequence of blunt truth and unfiltered compassion that resonates beautifully from Morton, Cruise and Morris who all nail it. What more can I say? Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote that this film reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place, and I agree. I was attentive, rose up to met the narrative with my focus and always felt entertained by both the large scale fireworks and careful mechanization of story. Masterpiece.
We are pleased to be joined by Joel Copling of Joel on Film, who is a great friend of Podcasting Them Softly’s. We discuss Steven Spielberg’s masterful MINORITY REPORT as well as the top five performances of Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton!