John Carter and Silent House

Strange surroundings


John Carter

The most awesome of the many special effects on view in the new John Carter is pyrotechnic in nature: How often do you get to watch $250-million (the movie's reported budget) go straight up in flames? Making his first live-action feature, director Andrew Stanton—the Pixar eminence who directed WALL*E and Finding Nemo—seems to have been swamped by the picture's sprawling source material. Watching the film is like sinking into a 3D bog of unending—and surprisingly dull—confusion.  

The movie began shooting more than two years ago, and has had, as they say, a "troubled" production history. It's largely based on the 1917 sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Since Burroughs went on to extend this tale about a 19th century earthling transported to the Red Planet through 10 more books, it seems likely that John Carter—originally titled John Carter of Mars before some genius decided that was a little too interesting—was envisioned as the first installment of a large and profitable franchise. I'd say we'll be seeing a series of Cowboys & Aliens sequels before that happens.

The Burroughs books were eagerly absorbed by any number of famous fantasy writers and filmmakers, from Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke to James Cameron and George Lucas. By now, after much cannibalization, the author's original narrative elements, wheeled out here as though they were fresh, seem musty and drained. As do the effects: even though they're executed at a very high level of digital craft, there's little that we haven't seen, in some form, before. In addition, the story, stretched well past the two-hour mark, is complicated to the point of incoherence, and clotted with mind-fogging Mars-speak. There are Therns and Tharks and wily Zodangans, Jeddaks and Odwars and eight-legged Thoats. The characters have names like Tars Tarkas, Sab Than, and Matai Shang. Toss in a few baskets of squalling green creature-babies and a mysterious item called the Ninth Ray and you have what might be called, in Earth-speak, a mess.

The movie partakes of several familiar genres: old-school space operas, Lord of the Rings-style fantasy films, vintage cowboys-and-Indians B features, and the Italian sword-and-sandal beefcake epics of the early 1960s. We meet wealthy New Yorker John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, of the Friday Night Lights TV series) in 1884. He has just summoned his nephew (Daryl Sabara) for an urgent meeting, but by the time the nephew arrives Carter has died, leaving the young man all of his money and a private journal. This diary yanks us back to 1868, to the sunbaked flats and canyons of the Arizona Territory. There Carter strikes it rich gold-mining, has a problematic encounter with some Apaches, and gets flung up to Mars by one of the aforementioned Therns, a heavily robed interloper who might have wandered in out of a David Lynch movie.

The Mars on which Carter arrives is a place of sunbaked flats and canyons not unlike the Arizona Territory (or Utah, where both of these sections of the film were shot). Here, under weaker gravity, Carter discovers that he can leap great distances at a single bound—a silly thing to see, actually, especially when we see too much of it. Soon he's taken prisoner by the green-skinned Tharks, who are nine feet tall and have four arms, two tusks, and a generally contentious disposition. Eventually we learn that Mars is a dying planet; that its humanoid inhabitants, the Red Men, divided into the rival cities of Zodanga and Helium, are at war over dwindling natural resources; and that the godlike Therns (led by Mark Strong) preside over this chaos with an obscure agenda of their own. Carter makes his way to Helium, where he meets the king's daughter, Dejah (Lynn Collins), who with her skin-centric battle-babe outfits suggests a previously unsuspected intergalactic obsession with Xena: Warrior Princess.

There follows much fighting, many airships, and a number of humongous CGI beasties. There's also a river voyage to the "Gates of Iss" that really is gorgeous. But the story is so maddeningly convoluted that a progression of talky interludes is required for the characters to attempt, unsuccessfully, to clue us in to what's going on. There are a number of famous actors in the cast, among them Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church; but they're unrecognizable under layers of Mars-folk CGI. This leaves the little-known leads, Kitsch and Collins, unflatteringly exposed. Kitsch lacks heroic flamboyance, and the pretty Collins exudes none of the standard-issue sexiness that might rev up the movie's targeted youth demographic. Both actors are fine, as these things go, but they're unable to surmount the picture's enervating longueurs. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to see this film a second time. Or, after its hype-swollen opening weekend, maybe even a first.           

Silent House

Movies shot—or said to be shot—in one long continuous take are rare, and no wonder. The technique is a stunt: Film students may be captivated, but since it closes off the editing strategies by which movies engage us, general audiences are unlikely to care. Why not just tell the story? 

In any case, some films thought to be single-shot achievements—like Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 Rope—actually contain artfully concealed cuts. And so does the new Silent House, despite its being promoted as a one-shot wonder. At a Q&A following a recent New York screening of the film, co-director Laura Lau acknowledged that, since the camera with which the movie was shot—an inexpensive Canon EOS 5D Mark II—can only produce 13 minutes of uninterrupted HD video, Silent House is in fact a stitching-together of nine separate shots. The cuts are well-covered, but the movie still feels like a stunt.

It's a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film called La Casa Muda, a haunted-house flick also said to have been shot in one take (although it, too, employed a Canon 5D, so maybe not). Elizabeth Olson stars as Sarah, a young woman helping her father (Adam Trese) fix up the family's lakeside summer home so it can be sold. They're joined in this endeavor by her father's brother, Sarah's Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), who has a vaguely creepy fixation on his shy niece.

The house is big and creaky and of course remotely located, and the requisite startlements begin early on: strange shuffling sounds ("Probably rats," says dad), sudden mirror reflections, doors mysteriously slamming at the end of long gloomy hallways, a strange figure distantly glimpsed. There's also a dark basement, a spooky little girl, and a weird young woman named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), who turns up claiming to be one of Sarah's childhood friends (Sarah doesn't remember her). There's also one memorable image—a toilet mounted high up on a wall, pouring out blood. Excellent.

The Canon's extraordinary ability to operate with minimal lighting enables Lau and her directing partner, Chris Kentis (their last film was the 2004 shark thriller Open Water), to shoot many scenes illuminated only by candles, lamps, and flashlights. And the need to create an illusion of continuous filming, which requires a focus on Olson in every scene, creates an atmosphere of claustrophobic dread that's unsettling in its own right.

Silent House is only the third movie in which Olson has appeared. (The first hasn't been released.) Her second picture, Martha Marcy May Marlene, which came out last year, was a memorable breakthrough, and it's too bad this film had to be the followup. She's still adept at conveying muffled inner turmoil, but she also spends a lot of time reduced to terrified whimpering, which grows monotonous. The movie has an icky twist at the end, and it could have been a snappy little horror film. But it's constricted by its gimmicky concept. When you have a story of any interest at all, why not just tell it?

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.