John Carter – less a review and more an analysis

I’m not really sure if I should bother reviewing the film, considering everyone seems to have made up their minds before it even hit theaters.

John Carter’s fared poorly with critics, even though most of them gave mixed but somewhat positive reviews. Leonard Maltin gave a very balanced review before encouraging anyone interested to see it. Richard Corliss at Time ended with “I’m glad Stanton made John Carter; I just don’t know why he did,” after dishing out both praise and complaints (also stealing my “transcend or subvert the genre” line). There’s a legion of uninspired and unimpressed reviews, though, and a bunch of negative  ones—the most critical being the one at Slant magazine, which was half review and half lengthy ad-hominum, calling the movie “a dollop of oatmealy, sick person’s poop.” (For balancing reasons, I’ll put Mark Holcomb’s glowing review for the Village Voice here.)

No, the film is not Casablanca, nor Citizen Kane. Nor is it on par with SF greats like 2001 or Blade Runner, or Avatar, a movie relative to John Carter in aesthetics, theme, and time. But oatmealy, watery poop? That’s the kind of derision I’d heap on a Star Wars prequel, or a direct-to-DVD release from some shithouse production company like Asylum—who happened to release Princess of Mars a few years ago, with the production values of the most insipid of SyFy TV movies and porn star/Juno Reactor eye-candy Traci Lords as Princess Dejah.

John Carter’s apparent sin is that its overinflated budget—$250 million, or more—only resulted in an above average, retroactively derivative, but most of all fun, blockbuster that’s failing to bust blocks. While it looks good, it doesn’t look as good as Avatar. And it’s got a long, long history of defying filmmakers, from Loony Tunes producer Bob Clampett, to Ray Harryhausen, to Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau and a half-dozen others, as a bad legacy to overcome. Add in that director Andrew Stanton worked magic on Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Wall-E, which translates to high expectations on behalf of viewers.

But the film feels like it was destined to fail. Disney’s lead-up marketing was half-hearted, starting with the decision to cut “of Mars” from the title, leaving us with the listless “John Carter” which tells the viewer nothing. Some too-little, too-late ads couldn’t make up for the lack of hype, the best of which being the ones for a Comedy Central special preview, proclaiming “John Carter / The Original Badass.” Plus, it was released well in advance of summer blockbuster season. And with its hyperinflated budget, the film needed to open to $100 million in order to spawn the franchise Disney was hoping for—a longshot given how badly the film was mis-marketed. Most of these relate back to the film’s director being brand new to live-action, and its executives being new on the job. The numbers are back in, and it broke $30.6 million in the US, charting second after The Lorax, plus $77 million overseas, leaving it the bomb critics proclaimed it as well before its release.

On the flipside. It’s been tracking very well with viewers, what few actually went to see it, and it has 70% user approval ratings at every site I’ve glanced at (Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, a B+ on CinemaScore, et al.). And that vocal minority is getting active, not just on the review aggregates but in the Blogosphere and on Twitter. With very few exceptions, the changes to the novel’s plot, and addition of elements from the second book, Gods of Mars, went over well with fans—good, because for the most part, the movie needed most of them. They leave John Carter capable but not superhuman enough to plow through each challenge undeterred (as he does a little too often in the first book), with Dejah Thoris more of a competent individual and not a lost romantic macguffin.

Two white apes of Barsoom show the SFX is pretty good.

As for the movie itself? It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s nowhere near an outhouse joke. But it’s not the cure for cancer that its price-tag might indicate. (Of course, this is Disney; they can afford to banter around with budgets in the triple-digit millions. Why should the film’s budget matter?) The effects are fantastic, with some amazing computer wizardry powering the machine-city of Zodanga and a variety of flying contraptions, plus all sorts of motion-capture Barsoom natives. The set and equipment design is spot-on amazing, giving a strong feel of the alien world, yet staying accurate to its source material (in essence when not in literal presence). I do wish there’d been more details to differentiate the Tharks, since there’s less feeling of individualization among them compared to Avatar’s Na’vi; the motion-capture work is good, but they’re like carbon copies. It’s easier to tell the humans—err, Red Martians—apart, even under their intricate costumes, henna-like tattoos, and British accents.

Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, does an admirable job, but it’s Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris who really pulls things off. A strong supporting cast, including William Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, Dominic West, and Mark Strong, round things out: all told, there’s no complaints about the acting. Kitsch isn’t my first choice for Carter, and I’m not sure he’s the perfect actor for the job, but he gave a good show of things. His chemistry with Collins is lacking, but passable; I think her performance was strong enough to make it work.

My big complaints would be that the movie has a surfeit of introductions, some of which should have been tossed to get Carter on Mars faster—the Arizona sequences are somewhat true to the book, but more a failed attempt to generate early-film action than a useful intro; they add nothing, except a woefully underused Bryan Cranston. Second, many of the action scenes are just too short: one of the longer ones is the vaunted gladiatorial sequence shown in the trailers, which tops out around 12-15 minutes. Including some setup. That gives the film a very disjointed feel, with lengthy sections of exposition that lead to overly terse action scenes. And as a PG-13 blockbuster, it needs those action scenes long and involved for the male teen audience. Third, see my aforementioned complaints about the generalized CGI Tharks. I can also see how the film would be confusing, throwing plenty of Martian terminology and history at the viewer; it made me giddy as a fanboy, but not everyone’s familiar with the source.

Taking Burroughs' 8th Ray-powered airships and making them into solar-paneled dragonflies was a fine idea.

I did really like the film; it’s accurate to its source material, it’s entertaining, it’s got a good sense of humor and solid enough characters backing up cool visuals and an eclectic, action-filled plot. But it just didn’t give me that mind-blown sense of wonder that I got from seeing Star Wars as a kid, or Avatar just a few years ago. (To be fair, I went into both of those with no set expectations at all, knowing nothing about them, while I’ve read Burroughs’ first novel two or three times in the past fifteen years, most recently just before the film released.) This is the kind of slightly-campy, fun adventure movie I’d shelve next to The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean.

What we’re left with is an entertaining, fun film that doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema: it’s an enjoyable SF romp that isn’t as memorable or spectacular as it should be, but isn’t the motion picture equivalent of having your teeth pulled like everyone says it is. It’s less Howard the Duck and more Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or whatever your preferential fan-favorite box-office-flop is. (I also thought John Carter was a stronger film, and truer to its source, than Disney’s previous franchise-killing flop, Prince of Persia.) It’s a niche genre film that cost too much and has a hard time appealing to those outside the SF nerd demograph. If you like no-nonsense, pulpy SF adventure, suspending your disbelief for some implausible thrills, go see it while you still can: it is worth seeing as a SF fan.

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