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December 4, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

ERB

Scrolling through some older posts today, I was reminded of The Illusion, which I saw at Triad Stage this past summer. The Illusion (by the same guy who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, which was great, by the way) had a lot in common with Cloud Atlas, showing the same characters enacting variations on a theme, playing out their karma over and over again. I really liked the play; still trying to decide about the movie.

My son and I both immediately liked John Carter (of Mars), which we DVRed off Starz last weekend.  It was a pretty, pretty movie, and much more true to the almost 100-year-old source material than I was expecting it to be. The CGI Tharks had all four arms, and they were suitably brutal, even to their own anonymous offspring. There’s a harsh scene of them culling the remainders in the stone nest where they left their eggs to incubate in the weak Martian sun. Burroughs went on at length about how their whole society was based on turning away from a mother’s love, how communism was basically social engineering to make them more savage, so they’d be better warriors. The movie has a whole subplot about how a mother’s forbidden love gives one of the Tharks the strength of personality to defy tribal traditions for the better. Burroughs had no scientific evidence for any of that, but science fiction doesn’t deal much with evidence, just lots and lots of great hypotheses (and equally large lots of  gratuituous nudity). Strangely, David Buss has a story about an Israeli experiment in communal living that failed because the women refused to raise one another’s children.

Before bed I've been flipping through a book of Neal Stephenson’s essays, where he contrasts “geeking out” over the details of interesting ideas to “vegging out,” or the passive watching of pretty pictures. According to him, the original Star Wars trilogy balanced these Yin and Yang of pop culture. The prequels, on the other hand, were strictly veg-out material, beautiful to look at, but not engaging any of the characters in detail, just presenting flat cardboard cutouts and assuming the fans would fill in the blanks from the published novels and games and comics. That’s a very interesting way to think about it, much more useful than just saying they sucked, as I usually do. If we apply that formula to John Carter, we see glimmers of Burroughs’ geeking out over politics and evolution (which he did all the time), but only glimmers. There are some clever lines, but like the prequels, it’s a movie you could watch with the sound off and not miss too much.

Stephenson also says that there are certain actors, like Hugo Weaving and Leonard Nimoy and Sigourney Weaver and Lance Henriksen, who excel in science fiction roles because they project intelligence, and SF hates stupidity. John Carter actually plays on this idea. There’s a neat little scene where Tars Tarkus (played by smart guy Willem Defoe) smacks pretty-boy dumbass Carter in the back of the head for leading them the wrong way. There’s also an attempt to update the red princess, Dejah Thoris, by making her more formidable than a professional hostage. The gorgeously muscular actress carries off the warrior princess thing fairly well, but having pretty-boy dumbass Carter teasingly call her “Professor” doesn’t make her smart. Not saying the lady isn’t smart in real life, just that she’s not projecting a ferocious and subtle intelligence into the character. The same kind of thing happened with Queen Amidala and Jane Foster, despite Natalie Portman’s obvious intelligence.

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