Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: John Carter (of Mars!)

There's been a lot of recent jibber-jabber about how Disney's classic sci-fi epic John Carter is a massive box office failure, with little chance of recovering its enormous $250 million budget. The film is performing far better overseas, but American audiences don't seem to want to give the film a chance, perhaps assuming that expressive CGI aliens and arena battles will re-open Star Wars prequel wounds? Personally, I find this reticence to be a little bit silly.

I've previously defended at least the concept of John Carter because in my mind, why wouldn't you at least give the film the benefit of the doubt? It's the live-action directorial debut of Pixar legend Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and Wall-E) and - not only is it based on classic literature - but it's about a grizzled wild west dude who gets super powers on Mars and beats the holy living shit out of a white ape. Who wouldn't want to see that? Sissies and babies, I'll wager.

Well, now I have actually seen the film with my own unwaivering eyes and can speak about it with knowledge and wisdom instead of wild speculation and bravado. What did I think? Join me after the (ridiculously high space) jump and all will be revealed!...

First, the short version.

When John Carter is good it is really, really good. And when it's not it is boring.

But I don't think that's really any of the fault of the film, nor the fault of director Andrew Stanton. I have not read the classic books, but I still get the sense that the parts of the film that left me confused or disengaged are elements that are impossible to move from the original story. For example, the ominous, scheming blue-eyed bald manipulators led by Mark Strong are never fully understood or embraced by me, but I realise that their inclusion is necessary when adapting the text.

Similarly, it's some of the longer expository scenes that had me drifting a little, but is that solely a flaw of the film, or more a flaw with modern film-making. Have the ADHD-friendly films of Stanton's contemporaries, such as Michael Bay, left my brain so addled that I can't enjoy a simple lapse in the action? No wait - forget that, because Transformers 3 - despite all its spectacle - is a boring film. John Carter is better than that. But you do need to approach it with the right mindset.

John Carter is a grizzled civil war vet who refuses to rejoin the war, putting his faith in a mysterious cave of gold which will wipe away his problems. During a confrontation between the local army and a tribe of Native Americans, John stumbles across a space-age amulet which in effect faxes a copy of him to Mars where he winds up in the middle of another civil war between two spirited factions of human-like martians. John winds up in the custody of the four-armed green warrior aliens, the Tharks, who have yet remained outside the over-arching war, and John uses this new connection to assist the beautiful Princess of Mars Dejah Thoris - the current cause of the conflict - who literally falls out of the sky and into John's life.

Oh! And did I mention that thanks to the different gravity on Mars, John can jump ridiculously high distances and kill a dood with one punch? It's pretty awesome. They should have called this film Jumpin' Johnny Carter! because it had more jumping than the entire Super Mario series.

There's a lot of stuff to like here. If the trailers gave you an aversion to the Thark aliens, then I want to try to convince you that it's unwarranted. There are no Jar Jar-isms here. Yes, they are expressive - and you could perhaps unkindly argue "cartoony" - but in the context of the film they feel 100% real and I completely believed in not just them, but also Carter's integration into their world.

But what really surprised me about the Tharks was how brutal and uncompromising they were as a race. They have immovable ideals and a strong sense of history and tradition, and you will see them carry out some nasty acts - to each other - that may make you flinch.

John Carter himself, Taylor Kitsch, is serviceable in the role but I never fully enjoyed him. He's best when he's kicking ass (which he thankfully does a lot of) but in quieter scenes he squints and scowls but never truly engages. I also wonder about his look - as despite continually parading his physique - he looks kind of filthy and pallid as opposed to heroic. He should be a punching-jumping Man-God, not a lilly-white hobo.

Princess of Mars Dejah Thoris fairs better. She's given strength by a fiesty Lynn Collins and it's fantastic to see Stanton actually casting a beautiful woman in her mid-thirties to give the required gravitas for the role. And by all accounts there's a lot of love for this character and a lot of pressure to get it right. Disney, of course, gives us a reasonably modest version, but do yourself a favour and google "Dejah Thoris" without your safe search. It's a fascinating insight into vintage Victorian wanking. Perhaps I need to read these books...

Also, major props to Dominic West who plays the villainous rival Sab Than who wants to marry Dejah and rule Mars. West makes for a convincing swashbuckling, conquering lout and always seems to enjoy everything he's doing.

On a technical level, the movie is beautiful. I revelled in the design, the effects, the score, the characterisation (the speedy huge-mawed dog is the best bit). You can see the massive budget on the screen. And I thought it looked great in 3D.

The only real issue is that it's sometimes slow, even at the beginning you may find yourself watching grizzled prospector John Carter and screaming in your best Arnold Schwarzennegar voice, "GET YOUR ASS TO MARRRRSSS RARARARRRGLEEE!". Dejah's introduction takes place in a large, empty CGI hall and involves far more earnest exposition than I was honestly able to stomach (and a mysterious machine that fails to pay off). Something that did strike me about these scenes though was that they had a classic Hollywood feel - I almost felt like I was watching Ben Hur or Cleopatra or something. I will leave it for you to decide whether that's something a modern audience should embrace or be mortified. It was during these scenes that I was able to imagine the average teenage movie-goer in modern America and think... "Oh, Ok... so this is why it isn't doing well..."

Which begs the question that confused me through this whole film. Why did Disney allow $250 million for the production of this movie? Why did they think that this (at times niche) story would be a huge success? The only explanation I could come up with was the huge success of Avatar, a film which draws upon very similar themes to Burroughs original work - hell, even John Carter's actual body lies dormant on earth while his facsimile leads a primitive alien race on Mars. It feels to me like Disney figured they may as well go straight to the source and produce their own Avatar-esque franchise and reap the rewards. When examined through that lens it's perhaps difficult to understand why John Carter hasn't done better - other than it lacks some of Cameron's tech, and perhaps audiences are feeling a little burnt out.

Ultimately I don't have a definitive stance on John Carter. Did I love it? Probably not. But there's part of me that wonders if I could love it in the future. It may be one of those rare films that gets better on repeat viewings once you are acclimatised to the concept. Further reading may also increase my enjoyment. And I definitely appreciate Andrew Stanton's craft. I do recommend that you experience the film for yourself - it's certainly worth doing that.

Oh! One other thing though... Red planet? Not actually that red. Maybe that's the problem.


  1. "Oh! One other thing though... Red planet? Not actually that red. Maybe that's the problem"

    This I think is the major problem. It doesn't look scifi enough when you compare it to Avatar. If you're are going to make scifi/fantasy you have to go after the art direction but Stanton played it pixar safe (compare the pixar films to the art of pixar books)when he should have made it like a Jack Kirby crazy space.

    The film is picking up a bit of steam ticket sale wise through word of mouth which is credit to Stantons storytelling. So I don't think the story is the problem but they really goofed with those visuals and how the trailers were cut in getting people into the cinema to go see it.

    Take for example Ridely Scott's new Prometheus trailers. That looks like a gorgeous scifi world and that is going to kill it at the box office(or I'll buy and then eat my newly bought hat).

  2. The Mars landscape is actually far more stunning than you'd believe from the trailers. But certainly not red enough. Not what we'd normally associate with Mars. It takes Carter a little while to realise that he's not on Earth.

    1. Its weird that THIS was the point of realism they decided to stick to. Mars on the ground isn't red, and the sky would correctly look blue, but when everything else is so fantastical, why did they stick to realism here?

      I wonder if looking at a predominantly red screen for a few hours has some negative psychological effects which would drive an audience insane?

    2. And the opening narration is basically, "You think you know about Mars? Listen up brother, you don't know shit about Mars."

  3. Fine review, sir.

    I thought the film was okay for this kind of thing (I didn't feel DUMBER after watching it), but my experience was RUINED by badly projected 3d (was completely out of focus), and poor sound. This at Melbourne's IMAX, which prides itself on its screen etc. A friend had the exact same problem in Perth, this sort of thing seems more and more common. Anyone else have the same problem?

    But yeah, its box office will hurt because its not based on a comic book, 80s cartoon or 70s tv show. That seems to be the difference between, "it looks AWESOME" and "it looks SHIT" for most people I've talked to about this.

    1. YESSS fucking cinemas lately have been shocking. I find actually coming out of a cinema where there was either a clear picture or decent sound rarer and rarer. Considering the prices we have to pay for movies over here in Aus this should not happen

  4. Americans HATE mars...there's never been one box office success with the word "Mars" in the title, which is why they removed it here. However, without that, it doesn't sound like anything. At first I though they meant terminator until I heard "carter" instead of "connor".

    anyway I want to see it, but sure as hell not in theatres...give me a nice blu-ray and leave me in peace! :D