The Legend of Tarzan


Him Tarzan, you Jane...don't you wish!!!

Him Tarzan, you Jane…don’t you wish!!!

(2016) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin, Casper Crump, Sidney Ralitsoele, Osy Ikhile, Mens-Sana Tamakloe, Antony Acheampong, Edward Apeagyei, Ashley Byam, Clive Brunt, Charles Babalola, Yule Masiteng, Mimi Ndiweni, Faith Edwards. Directed by David Yates

 

The pulp era gave us some of our most enduring characters and heroes. From the comic books to the detective novels, iconic characters like The Shadow, The Phantom, Superman, Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian all were created in that era. Perhaps the famous one of all, however, is Tarzan. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, he has been active in nearly every medium for nearly a century, from comic books to novels to television shows to of course the movies. Now comes the latest big screen Tarzan adventure, but what would the 21st century make of the pulp hero?

Tarzan (Skarsgård) has left the jungles of Africa and come home with his sweet Lady Jane (Robbie) to England, where he now inhabits his father’s title and mansion, and these days goes by the name of John Clayton, his given name. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Belgium’s bloodthirsty King Leopold II has quietly enslaved the natives in the Congo which was, at the time, a Belgian colony and has loosed his nefarious right hand man Colonel Leon Rom (Waltz) to take out the only man capable of stopping his plans – Tarzan.

Colonel Rom lures Tarzan back on an expedition ostensibly to inspect Leopold’s supposedly enlightened progress in the jungle and, as representatives of the English government imply, in the meantime assisting England with trade relations with the fractious monarch. Tarzan is decidedly reluctant to go back although Jane, who also grew up on the Dark Continent, is eager to return to her home and friends. Tarzan is accompanied by the American activist George Washington Williams (Jackson) who believes that Leopold is up to something – slavery, to be specific – and wants Tarzan to help him document it.

Of course, you don’t need Admiral Akbar to tell you it’s a trap. On a visit to the peaceful village where Jane grew up and near where Tarzan was raised by a tribe of apes, Jane is kidnapped by Rom and of course Tarzan chases him through the jungle relentlessly. What Tarzan doesn’t know is that an old enemy (Hounsou) awaits him on the other side of the jungle to take his revenge on the Lord of the Apes, in exchange for a boatload of diamonds that will enable Leopold to pay for a mercenary army to wreak havoc in central Africa. Definitely not cricket, that.

Skarsgård, who made so many fans on True Blood, makes a fine Tarzan. He reminds me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen with the kind of twinkle in his eye smirk that Mortensen has, particularly when he played Aragon. Skarsgård who took the role largely to please his father who’s a big Tarzan fan (his dad is noted actor Stellan Skarsgård for those not in the know) gives the pulp hero a brooding presence, perhaps more so than any other actor who has played him (and there have been plenty of those).

The pacing here starts off a little bit slow, but does pick up by the end. Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter flicks, knows how to build a level of action in his movies and by the time the final confrontation between Tarzan and Rom takes place, the audience is well-primed for it. As for that confrontation, trust me it’s a doozy. As far as thrills go, The Legend of Tarzan delivers.

One thing that was inevitable was that the modern liberal sensibilities of film critics were rubbed the wrong way. A lot of copy has been written about colonialism, and Tarzan as the Big White Bwana and there is truth to that – but considering Tarzan was created back in 1918, one must have at least some leeway for the times not only portrayed in the film but in the source material.

Although to be fair, in this case that source material was the Dark Horse comic rather than Burroughs’ original novels, which truth be told probably wouldn’t play well these days. Curiously, real people are used here – Leopold, Rom and George Washington Williams all existed and pretty much as they are depicted in the film. Adding Tarzan to the mix is an interesting idea, but it’s a lot like having Austin Powers try to stop the Kennedy Assassination, although of course the events in the Congo back at the turn of the 20th century are a lot less well-known to American audiences than JFK.

I will say that the lush backgrounds filmed in Gabon are absolutely extraordinary, although the actors mainly filmed on stages with green screens and CGI animals. And that to a very large extent defines what’s wrong with this film. They really wanted to go with realism in the story line, but rather than going with real animals, they went the CGI route and it shows at times. In other words, the filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too, but ended up with a doughy mixture with too much sugar and not enough substance.

REASONS TO GO: Skarsgård has A-list potential. The film utilizes gorgeous African vistas, although most of the jungle scenes are on sets.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much CGI spoils the broth. The mix of real and fictional is less enticing than it sounds.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of action and violence, some rude dialogue and a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last film to be produced by Jerry Weintraub, who passed away shortly before shooting wrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greystoke
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Observance

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Sci-Fi Spectacle 2014


Sci-Fi SpectacleIt is no secret, particularly to those who have known me awhile, that I’m a science fiction junkie. My late father turned me on to the genre when I was a boy with the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Larry Niven and I never looked back. I read everything I could get my hands on, from classics by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury to novelizations of Star Trek movies.

I was pretty young when I discovered science fiction in the movie theater and was blown away by the movies of the time – Marooned and Silent Running among them. Later, as I got older, I was delighted by Star Wars and its antecedents and stand-alone movies like Blade Runner and E.T. to name just a few.

So when thinking of a mini-festival to run in September, science fiction seemed a natural fit. I tend to look forward to films in that genre all year long and even if the movies rarely turn out to be really good, I still love them just the same, even the bad ones.

However I do take my role as critic seriously and so my reviews will be as balanced as I can make them and the excessive affection I may feel for a movie that I know deep down is mediocre will hopefully not show through. In any case, this new festival begins today and will cover three movies that may be universally admired or barely heard of but all will hopefully tap into your sense of wonder as much as they did mine. Enjoy!

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words