2012 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the first appearance of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories. It’s fitting that 2012 should also see the first big-screen adaptation of the tales, brought to life by Wall-E director Andrew Stanton. At a preview event in London last night, X&HT were among the few to catch a proper first look at clips from the film, and a chance to chat to John Carter hisself, Taylor Kitsch.
The Barsoom books are the Rosetta Stone of science fiction. They are the origin of pulp SF imagery and storylines that still get used today. Without Barsoom, there would be no Flash Gordon. No Flash Gordon, no Star Wars. No Star Wars, no Avatar. It’s that simple. Andrew Stanton elaborates:
“Because the subject matter was written so long ago, it was also a bit of an origin of those kinds of stories–a comic book before there were comic books, an adventure story before that became a genre of its own.”
Disney and Pixar aren’t mucking around with this one. Taking liberties with the ur-text from which a very large pool of genre storytelling has sprung would be tantamount to falling on your sword in front of a huge arena full of screaming fanbois. It’s good to see then that script duties are shared out between Stanton, fellow Pixar alumnus Mark Andrews (whose Brave, coming out this summer also looks like something of a must-see) and Pulitzer-Prize winning fabulist Michael Chabon.
So how does the film look? The watch word was realism. There’s enough craziness going on in the story that the settings need to have an air of authenticity. VFX gurus Sue Rowe and Eamonn Butler were on hand to explain how they took location footage shot in Utah and seamlessly layered in alien detail–cities carved out of the rock, structures and sculpture rearing out of the dust and heat-haze. Producer Jim Morris added:
“As much as possible, we decided to shoot in actual locations and minimise the amount of digital set creation, so that the audience always feel like they are grounded in real places. We hope that this will add an additional air of authenticity that will heighten the believability and realism of the film.”
Another element to that believability, of course, is buying into the idea that the majority of the cast are nine-foot tall green monsters with four arms and tusks. The performance capture that Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and the rest of the cast underwent to underpin the character animation was hampered by the fact that they were not just wearing camera headsets and sexy marker jumpsuits–they were also on stilts. In the middle of a Utah desert during the hot season. Meanwhile Taylor Kitsch had to cope with a brutal training regime and a massive amount of wirework to get across the idea that he can jump tall buildings in a single bound in the light gravity of Mars.
At the Q&A Kitsch, Sue Rowe and Eamonn Butler were modest but proud at their version of the Martian chronicle of the adventures of John Carter. But they were unanimous in their praise of the driving force of the film, Andrew Stanton. His excitement and enthusiasm for the stories that he’d loved as a boy rubbed off on the rest of the cast and crew.
And it shows in the finished product–or at least the clips that we saw last night. There were truly epic landscapes and huge battle scenes, but humour too, and a lightness of touch that comes straight out of the Pixar school of storytelling. It’s a tale of high adventure and derring-do, an unashamed swashbuckler with the scale of the most sweeping of historical dramas. Like those, John Carter is grounded in a world with a history and texture that feels right, solid and ancient. It doesn’t feel made-up, weirdly enough. It feels researched.
The feel at the Q&A was that John Carter is a labour of love for everyone involved. I can only concur. Find Barsoom at the right age and it gets under your skin. Will this unashamedly retro piece of SF resonate with modern audiences? Well, it doesn’t have to be reticent about its sources–this is the real deal, the mother lode. On the evidence of what I’ve seen thus far, John Carter holds true to that pedigree and is rightfully proud of it.
John Carter hits cinema screens on March 10th. Many thanks to Luke at ShowFilmFirst for the tickets.