Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: "John Carter"

The road to theaters hasn't been easy for John Carter, Disney's big-screen treatment of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic (ish) fantasy adventure novels. No major stars, reports of a ballooning budget, shifting release dates, and then reports of costly re-shoots all pointed to one conclusion: a massive flop. Now, considering that I'm a little late in seeing the film, directed by Pixar alum Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), I can't make predictions. We know that the film has flopped; it's done. So, with that out of the way, we can stop talking about box office, and start talking about the film's artistic merits, of which, outside of its technical categories, there are precious few.

It's a shame too, because only a few months ago another Pixar director, The Incredibles' Brad Bird, made his live-action debut with the extremely fun Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Unfortunately, Staton's transition to live-action hasn't been quite as successful, though he's hardly the source of the film's least as a director. As co-writer, however, he does deserve some of the blame. In adapting Rice Burroughs' story, the sort of fare that seems better suited as a Saturday morning cartoon, Staton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon have crafted a wannabe-epic that is so scattershot and overstuffed, not to mention overly serious, that it nearly collapses in on itself.

Here's the basics: Confederate soldier John Carter (Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch), after finding himself trapped in a cave, somehow finds himself transported to Mars (known by its inhabitants as Barsoom). There, the planet is at war as two humanoid cities, Zodenga and Helium, battle for supremacy. There's also green, four-armed creatures known as Tharks, who both aid and hinder Carter as he tries to piece together where he is and how he got there. Now, the past few sentences have more than a few silly words in them, but through all of it, the actors play it straight. There's a sense of humor missing here that would have made all of it a little more bearable.

Unfortunately, John Carter is so concerned with making itself the next big sci-fi/fantasy franchise, it winds up suffering from throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-if-something-sticks-syndrome (that's T.E.A.T.W.A.S.I.S.S.S. for short). It's not too much of a problem for about half of the film's 2 hour duration. Unfortunately, once it hits the last 40 minutes, the narrative goes into Important Incident Overload. There's a wedding, a massive fight in an arena, a massive Thark horde, a big battle, another wedding, and several trips between Earth and Barsoom. It's all so much that none of it carries any weight, and the dramatic shifts that should come as surprises or moments of triumph/despair ring hollow.

The acting doesn't do the film any service. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but the dramatics all feel phoned in, and the actors can do little to elevate the material considering the take-everything-seriously direction Stanton opted for. Kitsch makes for a perfectly decent hero, and Collins has what it takes to make a kick-ass heroine, even though she's reduced to being saved by Kitsch at least three times in the exact same manner. Other roles, like those played by Dominic West and Mark Strong, have potential to be fun antagonists, but they have even less to work with than the heroes. I don't doubt that the actors involved could have made this a worthwhile journey, but the filmmakers so thoroughly undermine them that there's little they can really do.
Which is an even bigger shame, considering that the film does have one area where it truly shines: the visuals. Despite some borderline campy costume design, Barsoom looks immaculate, whether it's in the dusty desert villages of the Tharks or the halls of Helium. Best of all are the winged airships that come closest to giving John Carter's world something to differentiate itself from, say, Tattooine. The visual effects are also remarkable, whether it's the scenery, the Tharks, or the massive, 6-legged white apes. So much money obviously went to the visuals, and the VFX work is strong enough that it doesn't feel plastic-y or weightless, but that key element of movie-making - the script - is so deeply flawed that even the visuals can't redeem it.

So, is John Carter a true disaster? From a financial perspective, probably. From an artistic perspective, not so much. It's not particularly good (even the actions sequences to little to get the heart racing), and some of the final act borders on train-wreck territory due to the rushed pacing, but it's missing that special spark that would make it a true failure as a film. Uninspired? Yes, visuals aside. Weak characters? Yup. But a worst-of-all-time level failure? Not quite. It's simply that controversies and expectations have played such a big part in how we've come to known John Carter, that it's hard to separate the financial performance from the quality of the filmmaking. That doesn't mean that you need to see it, or that you're missing anything. It just means that big flops don't entirely equal major artistic failings. Sometimes they just mean massively mediocre efforts with little to nothing worth writing home about.

Grade: C

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