Monday, March 12, 2012

NWC Movie Review - John Carter

By Geddy Cahoon

A Facebook status update I posted shortly after seeing the big (Read: Monstrous) budget film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' highly influential Sci-Fi serial novels amounted to: I wasn't a fan. Scott's response was short, and to the point: "Then read the fucking book." And really, I think that's all I can say to anyone who viewed this movie, or is considering it. Burroughs' tone setting "Barsoom" pulp novels, upon which John Carter is based, are undoubtedly better than Disney's first Box Office Flop of 2012.

Hit the jump to read my complete review of box office bomb and future film buff punchline, John Carter.

Note: This is the first movie review I've ever done. Bear with me if it's awful. Or, compliment my abilities if it's amazing!

I guess this thing should start with a little background info on the source material and the film itself. John Carter is based on the serialized "Barsoom" pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of another character adapted to the big screen by Disney, Tarzan. The novels were eventually placed into one large collection, Princess of Mars. The novels, from what I've read, deal with this Civil War Era man, John Carter, being accidentally teleported to the planet Mars, which is populated by tusked, four arm creatures known as Tharks. The film was directed by Andrew Stanton, a name you may not know, but if you're reading this blog, you've undoubtedly enjoyed a ton of his work. He's one of the writers behind all three Toy Story films (Meaning this man is pretty much already my hero) as well as Monsters Inc. He also directed two little films known as Wall-E and Finding Nemo.

It's an impressive resume, for sure. But that was one of the film's biggest issues from the start: Stanton has NEVER directed live action. John Carter was his first live action film to date and - Surprise - it tanked. I already feel like I'm rambling, but suffice to say, the production was a bit of a disaster. The preceding was the understatement of the century, by the way. For those interested in the perfect storm of chaos regarding this movie's filming, check out this article from the NY Times, Ishtar Lands on Mars. It talks a lot about some of the problems plaguing the film's production, and based on comments from the higher ups, Disney appears to be not-so-subtly pushing all of the blame for the film's failure onto Stanton.

But enough rambling. I think it's time for me to shut up and actually review this thing. When previews of JC started airing on TV, I was intrigued. The advertising campaign was admittedly not very good, so I was a bit in the dark as to what the movie entailed. After doing some research, and learning that it was almost guaranteed to bomb at the box office, I decided I had to give some form of support to the adaptation of the stories that inspired Sci-Fi epics like Star Wars. Here's the thing though: Even if it had been marketed better, that wouldn't have changed the fact that John Carter simply isn't very good. I really wanted to like it. I wanted to be able to stand up when people said "This looks like the lamest movie ever" and counter with, "Actually, it was a visual masterpiece, with surprisingly decent acting and a good story to boot." John Carter just... Isn't that, as much as I want it to be. Perhaps if I had read any of Burroughs' novels, that would've been different. I haven't. Whether it's a decent adaptation or a terrible one, I have no choice but to view John Carter objectively for what it is: A confusing, muddled movie that's far too long, and rehashes a story we've seen 6 million times at this point.

One of JC's biggest problems is the story. It's just that same basic tale of an outsider who gains the trust of the native people of some distant land, and eventually must save them from the brink of destruction. There's not really a single unique plot element in this movie. The most ironic part about that, obviously, is that A Princess of Mars is pretty much responsible for this trope that I'm citing as a reason for the movie's suck-ish nature. It's an extremely odd Catch-22. John Carter is extremely bland because it subscribed to a formula that it more or less created. If a film adaptation had come along years ago, maybe before Avatar, perhaps the plot wouldn't be such a big deal. At the end of the day, however, there are far more visually pleasing films that use John Carter's formula (I'll get to the visuals in a bit).

The generic nature of JC's plot is something extremely forgivable. Generic doesn't equal bad. It just means common. Breaking Bad uses some fairly generic plot elements, but it does them well enough that the fact that they're often used doesn't matter at all. John Carter, however, has an EXTREMELY convoluted plot, as well as an extremely generic one. The film opens with a scene on mars, in which the central antagonist (Or I suppose, one of the central antagonists. This film has a LOT of plot threads, and a lot of villains, though I don't know that I'd consider any of them the central antagonist. The movie kind of lacks a distinct main villain) receives some powers, in an unspecified year. Then, we flash FORWARD to (If memory serves) 1881, where it is revealed John Carter is dead. The rest of the film is a flash BACK to 1868 (I believe), being told in the form of a written memoir to Carter's nephew. Then at the end, we flash forward again to 1881. The film goes from:

-Unspecified time to
- 1881 to
- 1868 to
- 1881

That's... Pretty ridiculous. There are also some problems with plot explanation. In the beginning (One of the beginnings) it's established that Carter is looking for a cave of gold. I don't believe it's ever clearly stated why. Maybe it was mentioned offhand, or it may be implied through an aspect of Carter's character (I'll get to the characters later too), but I really don't think he had an explicit reason for wanting that cave, and it's fucking bothering me. Then there's the issue behind the motivation of... I suppose you could call them the main villains, the Thurns. They're your generic "Agent of Fate" type characters, who are evil simply because they bring order to the universe. They want to do... Something to Mars because... Deja, the princess, knows science... And one of them is on Earth and gets killed by Carter... He was on Earth because... I don't think the reason for the sequence of events they're attempting to bring about is ever stated either. Feel free to correct me angrily in the comments if I'm wrong - I know you will. Just don't be too harsh! To its credit however, John Carter does a pretty adequate job of tying all the plots that I did understand together. Stories involving the barbaric customs of the Tharks, the issues with the other people of Mars, and John Carter's motivations, are tied together quite nicely. There was a lot going on, but it came together well. Overall though, it should have been shorter. I think it was somewhere around 2 hours and 20 minutes. It got to the point where I was just begging for it to end.

I was talking earlier about the characters... In a nutshell, they're all extremely weak. I didn't care about any of them. I actually sorta wanted Deja to die, just because she bugged me. I probably would've cheered if the badguys won. I didn't like the badguys more or anything, I just didn't give two shits about the heroes. It's poorly written, is what I'm trying to say. Post-viewing, as I've been thinking about the picture quite a bit since Sunday, John himself wasn't quite as boring. His rationale behind fighting to save Mars was more inspired than the rest of the characters. He did so because he had absolutely nothing to live for after losing his wife and daughter to a tragic fire, and protecting Mars gave him renewed purpose (Scenes regarding the family are extremely grisly and will be touched on later). I'm willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he was hunting the cave of gold because, as a man with nothing, he felt riches could fill the void. That extremely simple character description might be too complex for this film though. The weak acting does nothing to help the writing. Stanton specifically cast unknown actors for some reason, and it shows. All of John's big scenes feel labored under the delivery of whoever the guy playing him is. The biggest name attached to the picture is Willem DaFoe, and I didn't even know he was in it... The Tharks (Four armed tusked creatures mentioned earlier) are the films most likable characters, if only because they look cool.

This is as good a segue as any into the next point, the special effects. They could've saved this. They easily could've turned it into a "Turn off your brain, sit back and enjoy the fighting" action movie. Action films don't need deep characterizations or any of that nonsense. They just need to be visually stunning and feature well choreographed battles. The battles in John Carter are definitely impressive. And the film IS definitely a visually stunning one. It just doesn't look real. At all. I really am a huge fan of the way the Tharks turned out looking. But regardless of how neat they look, that doesn't change the fact that they're so blatantly fake.When scenes transition from real to CG, it looks terrible and obvious. I love cartoony visuals, I'll be upfront about that. So I actually am a bit torn over my reaction to this aspect of the film... I guess that I have to say that, in the end, a movie has to be all cartoony, or all realistic, unless it's some pretentious artsy movie that has to be both to prove some pretentious point. John Carter is NOT one of those. So as much as I enjoy some of the visuals, most of them just don't work.

While that covers the bulk of the movie, there was one other thing that I really took umbrage with:

 JC had NO idea who it was targeted towards. There's no identity to this movie. It doesn't have something for the whole family. It has a bunch of random shit that is actually kind of disturbing in terms of how wildly varied it is. There are random scenes of comic relief interspersed throughout the film, which isn't a bad thing, so long as this is a film expressly aimed at children and teens. But then, you have the downright disturbing scene of John discovering the FRESHLY BURNED CORPSES OF HIS WIFE AND DAUGHTER (Yes, you see their charred bodies, fully), and then burying them while WEEPING OVER THE GRAVES. It was extremely random for a movie that seemed to be mostly marketed as a "family adventure" type thing. I have no issue with dark overtones in works intended for the youngsters, but when you have slapstick scenes of John faceplanting while trying to walk, as well as a loveable canine sidekick, how can you also show scenes of Tharks brutally executing their own babies, and the punished creatures being brutally branded while chained to a ceremonial stone? It's just... Jarring. This undoubtedly contributed to the financial disaster the movie became. Who do you market this to? I'm sure any parent who took their child to see this regretted it when JC shot a man in the back towards the end (Provided all the other violence and wretchedness hadn't already made them think twice). I'm no prude. I like some violence, and a little darkness never hurt anybody. But I'll acknowledge that this movie went too far (For what I assume was the intended demographic) in too many ways.

In Closing: John Carter, while I desperately wanted to enjoy it, was doomed from the start. A strange marketing effort coupled with an inexperienced director, weak characters, a plot we've seen before, and visuals that just didn't cut it killed one of the innovators of Sci-Fi storytelling before it dropped. It was almost fun, but ultimately, there's just too many things holding it back. I haven't read the novels upon which this film is based, but they're undoubtedly better. ** out of *****

You should've been so much more...

That's it for my first ever film review! Tell me what you thought in the comments (Be nice though!). I wouldn't expect this feature to be too too regular, but perhaps one will get thrown up whenever Scott or I see a somewhat recent or new movie. We're going to attempt to start updating the site with a tad more regularity, but no promises there. Since we got a film of these pulp novels from the 1900s, I'd like to put in a modest request for the next pulp hero to get the modern silver screen treatment: DOC SAVAGE.

He's 300 pounds of blonde, bronze, hyper-intelligent badass with absolutely no character flaws, and we all know that the totally flawless characters are the most interesting ones. Hollywood can thank me once he's made millions.

Thanks for reading, and Welcome to Your Doom!

- Geddy

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