Friday, March 9, 2012

Promises, Promises -- Reflections on "John Carter" (2012)

"I don't think I belong here. I don't mean on Mars...I mean in this movie."

John Carter is being advertised as an epic action-adventure from one of Pixar’s most well-known directors. Translation: expect excitement, great visual effects, and one hell of an emotional story. Once I saw all these things in the trailers, I was sold. I went all in on John Carter.

I just wish the movie had gone all-in as well. John Carter is a well-crafted film with solid CGI work, but falls well short of the bar set by its advertising. For all of its excellent visuals and breathtaking moments, it is remarkably deficient in the one area I expected it to thrive in the most: the story. It is poorly cast, has a script in need of some major work, and seems more intent on setting up a film franchise than actually being a great stand-alone film.

After a riveting opening sequence in which we learn that there are two tribes on Mars (known by the locals as Barsoom) at war with each other, and a group of god-like beings have given the savage leader a weapon of mass destruction in order to take over the planet, we meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Carter is a Civil War veteran who has acquired great wealth. After his mysterious death, he leaves his entire estate to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs also inherits Carter’s journal, and because of his immense curiosity, decides to read it. From there the movie’s story unfolds. That so much of the film’s endgame hinges on Burroughs reading the journal immediately upon receiving it makes the framing device feel clunky and contrived by the end.

The journal chronicles Carter’s path to being magically transported to Barsoom, where he is taken in by a third tribe, called the Tharks. They have four arms, blue blood, and a hive mentality. The Tharks’ leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), takes an appreciation of Carter, whose displacement on Mars has given him Superman abilities to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Eventually their paths cross with a beautiful Princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is running away after her father tries forcing her to marry the savage leader, Sab Than (Dominic West), in order to bring peace among the tribes. Dejah is also entranced by Carter, and offers to help him find his way back to Earth if he is willing to help her fight for her people’s freedom from tyranny.

Basically, John Carter is the traditional hero tale. No more, no less. He is reluctant, accepting, goes through trials, and follows the rest of the Joseph Campbell hero cycle. As a result, the story is dull, and has a real been-there-done-that vibe. I know some people will get mad at this statement, and tell me that the filmmakers were adapting an older text that was written before the Campbell theory was popularized by George Lucas. I guess that means I should be cutting director Andrew Stanton and his writing team some slack, but it’s important to note that while John Carter of Mars was written before Star Wars made the “hero cycle” all the rage, the movie John Carter is being released after years of other films have turned Campbell’s ideas into clich├ęs. That may seem unfair, but works of art are the products of cultural context, which often determines their success or failure in the present. Maybe John Carter will one day be hailed as a masterpiece by future generations who see something we’re missing (although I doubt it), but in the present context it is a good looking film with tired ideas and clumsy execution.

This film would have benefited from a story that re-invented Edgar Rice Burrough’s pulp novels and strayed away from the traditional hero tropes. I understand why a passionate fandom would want a movie based on a favorite series of books to be true to the original text (I’m sure I’ll be recycling this sentence in one form or another when I review The Hunger Games in a couple weeks), but when a book is almost 100 years old, and not necessarily a “classic,” shouldn’t a filmmaker be entitled to a little artistic license? There should be a desire to separate the title from the pack of titles already out there, not make something that places it firmly in the middle of the pack.

Besides the general structure of the film, the casting is of great concern. Usually I don’t remark on these things in my reviews, because I don’t completely understand the complexities of casting a movie. What I do know, though, is that when an actor is cast, he or she should look the part, even if their talent isn’t enough to bring the total performance. That said, casting Taylor Kitsch as the titular hero was a bad idea. Simply put, he’s not heroic enough. Kitsch, who is an excellent young actor, comes from the James Dean/Marlon Brando school of brooding protagonists. He does not look the part of a hero, nor does he play the part particularly well, so as his star rises among the various Baroomian tribes it is hard to see what they are seeing in him, outside of his spectacular abilities. Also woefully miscast is Dominic West as the evil Sab Than. This could be because Sab Than is written as a muscle-bound lummox. West is miscast here because he is an actor that can express much more subtlety. His character’s broadness makes him seem out of place in a role that could have been played by any number of lesser actors. It was hard watching both of these actors, for whom I have respect for from the roles they defined on TV’s Friday Night Lights and The Wire, being misused.

There are things I enjoyed about John Carter, don’t misunderstand me. The design of its creatures is phenomenal, especially the Tharks, whose four-armed bodies and horned heads makes them look threatening, yet strangely welcoming. The movie also has a great sense of humor when it takes time to develop character relationships. I loved early scenes of Carter trying to figure out how to walk on the reduced gravity Martian landscape (although this handicap is quickly abandoned once the plot needs Carter to do something dramatic). And I absolutely loved Lynn Collins as the Dejah Thoris. She embodies strength, discipline, and sensitivity, making her a powerful female character. I wish the movie hadn’t reduced her to a stereotype in the third act, but Collins commands the screen better than anyone else on the cast. She is also one hell of a sexy woman; her eyes and cleavage manage to distract from most of the film’s weaker plot points during the languid middle.

A movie like John Carter is pretty easy pickings on the criticism front. Being a pre-summer blockbuster, and from Disney Studios, it has the makings of a film you can hate on. I don’t like the fact that I struggled with it, or that I had so much to criticize. Movies in this genre are among my favorites, and I wanted this one to join the group of great sci-fi/fantasy/action-adventure films. I wanted this one to fill my heart with joy as I watched a man explore Mars. I wanted it to ignite my passion for adventure and storytelling.

I wanted John Carter to live up to its promise.

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