[Review] - John Carter

Courtesy of Disney

Straight off, I'd like to say that John Carter is not as bad as people have said, but only just. Is it a flawed movie? Yes. Seriously flawed in places. But not a complete failure of a movie, just a disappointing one; disappointing for the missed opportunity. And, perhaps a showcase for exactly how much money George Lucas owes the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Adaptations are strange beasts. Do you change the story to better fit the medium, or the characters, and risk alienating fans of the original to appeal to a newer, or broader, or simply different audience? Think Planet of the Apes, or Blade Runner, or any Philip K. Dick adaptation, really. Or, do you try to be faithful to the originating text, perhaps so much so that you loose sight of the goal: to make a film, to the detriment of the story, and the characters, and alienate the audience for an entirely different set of reasons. Lord of the Rings, it could be argued, followed this path. So did Watchman. And so too did John Carter.

The movie did make nearly $270 million, though less then a third of that was American box office, which is the only one that counts, apparently, and is only a twenty million dollar profit, enough for Disney executives to loose their jobs and the movie to be declared a box office bomb. That is the hyperbolic nature of the American film industry, prone to manic-like swings in temperament.

Hit the jump for the review.

Looking at the film as a whole, the first issue that comes to mind is the general construction. This is a movie that badly needs an edit. Nearly three quarters of an hour of the 132 minute slog should have been left on the floor. It's not a question of content: the Avengers was longer, and felt shorter. Why? Because of pacing. A good edit would have tightened up the film, making it move a little more briskly, and more organically. Would certain characters have needed to been sacrificed? Of course, but besides Carter himself, and the once titular Princess of Mars (Lynn Collins), no character is given that much depth anyway. Some of the subplots, like the Thark power struggle, are introduced, abandoned, reestablished, then swept away. In fact, it's mostly the Thrak story lines that goes no where, and adds nothing to the overall film, and could easily have been reduced to more manageable (read: negligible) levels.

The film, I think, was too well loved by director Andrew Stanton, and needed a fresh set of eyes. Stanton was obviously unwilling to make the tough choices against the script and film to make it a truly good movie. And considering he's from the best movie production company in terms of quality, Pixar, it was really shocking. Apparently, those relentlessly critical meetings they hold daily at Pixar really do work, and if this film came out of that studio, it never would have made it to screen.

The biggest problem I had with the film was the over all tone, or lack of one. Every big, 'tent pole' film wants to strike that balance between drama and humour, to draw in as much audience as possible. The trick is not having the difference between the humour and drama be a chasm. Sudden tonal shifts launch John Carter from heart felt drama to slapstick comedy. There is a completely superfluous character who runs so fast he's essentially the Road Runner, leaving a smoke image of himself behind as he takes off. It's as if two drafts of the script were merged: one, a cartoonishly over wrought comedy, and the other a solemn human drama, and no attempts were made to marry the two organically. So, the comic stuff feels forced and the dramatic stuff feels corny. It's somewhat obvious the comedy may have been forced into the script, in an attempt to create a new Pirates franchise. Which, considering the state of Pirates, isn't comforting.

But the script, and Stanton, cannot hold the total blame. The actors are responsible for their own failings, too. Taylor Kitch never shows up for work; every single line read cold from the page. He attempts emotion several times, but falters at every turn. There wasn't a single scene where I felt he actually was reacting to what was happening to him, be it a digital occurrence or physical one. The supporting cast, too, opted to use minimal energy while inhabiting these characters, which is a shame, because they've got some very talented people to work with. Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Willem DaFoe, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds. All talented actors who either had nothing to work with, or were unwilling to work with what they had. The biggest waste of the film is Bryan Cranston, whose little more then cameo as a Colonel has him playing straight man to a series of gags more at home with Pirates, and not as funny as the movie thinks they are.

The bright spot in the cast is Lynn Collins, who uses the film as basically a very expensive screen test for the role of Wonder Woman. Put a phone book under her, and I could easily see her dominating that role. It's a shame here, she can't decide if she's sticking with the vaguely British-ish accent or not. Her Dejah Thoris is the real star of the film, and in a better version, might have been a proud addition to pantheon of ass-kicking female action heroes. Unfortunately for her, Disney strongly feels that people don't go to see movies with female leads, so they have to be romantic interests instead. So, her moments of power and intelligence are reduced to being used as punchlines or sight gags, and her wardrobe reduced to loin cloths. Progress, people.

The movie looks impressive though. Really, the CG was well crafted, and gave the sense of grandeur that was required. What was amazing, and shocking, was how poorly the practical effects were done. The wigs and false beards were some of the worst I've seen on film, and the wire work was a joke. What does it say when they can CG Carter jumping Hulk-style over a ravenous 'white ape', and have it appear more believable then the wire work of Carter trying to figure out gravity.

Disney obviously thought they had something here. They thought they had a new Pirates. They thought, no doubt based on Stanton's passion for the project and experience with Pixar, that they could sink as much money into this as they did the Avengers, and it would solve all their ills. The truth is, the passion that Stanton had was what doomed the project. The movie is too big. It deserves to be smaller. This is the story that birthed modern science fiction, yes, but modern science fiction has done all of this before, larger, and better.

Reduce it to the personal story of two isolated individuals, in Carter and Thoris. Juxtapose their situations, and bring them together to find a way to grow beyond the limitations placed in front of them. Cut the fat off the story, get rid of characters like the Speedy dog-thing, and the massive battles. Make it about people, and not image, and you might have something. As it stands, John Carter is an excellent example of the problem with modern 'blockbusters': sacrifice everything else, just make it look good.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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