Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Considering the talent involved in the film--Dominic West (McNulty!), Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, James Purefoy and the eclectic Bryan Cranston, I was excited for the film. I was even excited to see Taylor Kitsch (despite his limited range) because of Friday Night Lights.
For some reason, Disney decided to spend two hundred fifty million dollars on this film to make the CGI characters and action not only seem real but interact seemlessly into the equally CGI landscape around them--it's a movie that's almost worth seeing just for its beautifully rendered images. Then there's the essentially all star cast and hiring Pulitzer prize winning writer Michael Chabon to co-write the script along with the highly talented Andrew Stanton directing (Finding Nemo not withstanding), only to dull up the title (going from the far more interesting John Carter From Mars to the antiseptic and non-revealing John Carter, leaving only die-hard fans to really know what it's about, and leaving others who might be interested in the film without any real information as to what it's supposed to be about. There's a rumor that the film (Stanton's first live-action attempt) was over budget and the script was not as clear as it should be in its plot and characterizations. Well, that didn't stop Paramount from releasing Star Trek (2009) and blitzkrieging us with its promotional campaign. So what was Disney here? Embarrassed? Like the never put out a flop? Please.
We're given Carter's back story largely through exposition and blink-and-you'll-miss-them flashbacks. As I said, his story is about trying to function, trying to care again after these severe and concurrent losses. We see him change, warming to Dejah slowly. He was protective of her, then lost patience, then began to feel a certain affection for her and empathy for the situation she was in. She feels for her kingdom the way he feels for his lost family and that's why he chooses to stay and help her. The only problem is that at the very second the war with McNulty is over, he asks to marry her, and we jump-cut from their wedding to their honeymoon. At first I thought I had a stroke, but since I didn't smell any burning toast, I assume it was poor writing and editing. We were given too little information and character moments to really understand Carter, and when we finally were starting to get it, when we notice some small changes, he suddenly floors it and gets hitched. It was jarring.
While the marriage seemed forced and contrived (Disney demands that if they're going to fuck they need to be married first, but didn't mind letting us know Carter's first wife and daughter were burned alive), Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins (who plays Dejah) do have a natural chemistry so as their relationship and feelings for one another change, the change from ally to love interest doesn't feel shoe-horned.
The world of Mars/Barsoom has a number of different cultures at work here, they're all very different and well thought out. You can tell from what we're given that a lot of work went into giving these aliens their own patois, beliefs, nuances, values and quirks, but we saw very little of it here; they're trying to sell us on the diversity of the planet, of the fish-out-of-water that Carter is, but the story just ends up feeling incomplete. We don't really get to know or understand the Tharks, the Therns, or the people of Helium and Zodanga. We know they're different, we know they don't like each other, and what little detail is given just makes them seem more alien and less relatable. In short, the movie's scope was as broad as its limitations, which at a two hour run time is inexcusable.
Often, we're left to fill in the gaps ourselves, as far as answering how and why. Why was there a portal on Earth in the first place? Who built them? The Therns don't need them to travel; they exist to reap chaos. Why? Why are the (advanced?) weapons on Mars ineffective against them but a bullet works? Given how the "red people" and the Therns look and considering their sexual compatibility to humans, one would assume the question of common ancestry would come up, right? Nah. I know that I should cut this film some slack because it's meant to be the first in a trilogy of films so a fair amount of exposition and unanswered questions are bound to exist. It looks as if that the meat of the story is how Mars/Barsoom is dying, and John Carter has to save it from the Therns. That's fine. The only problem is that the screenplay essentially resolved nothing. There was a the war between the red people that still remains open, the Tharks have their own stuff going on, nothing has actually changed. If anything, the movie needed to end with the warring red and the uninterested Tharks coming together once the machinations of the Therns is exposed, uniting the planet under their common desire--survival. We can still keep the cliffhanger of Carter returning tens years later to find the planet having changed a great deal already, leaving the door open for a much different and darker sequel.
The dialogue in this film oscillates between good and ridiculous, between clear and expository. Some things seemed to be there for the sake of reminding us this is a sci-fi franchise (white apes, body copies) and it seems Hollywood has decided to finally make the change over from all non-Americans talk with British accents to aliens also now do to. It seems that they think we're entirely stupid now.
Already there is speculation on whether or not there's going to be a sequel. John Carter flopped in terms of its budget making $100,000,000 of its $250,000,000-$300,000,000 budget. Honestly, I really wouldn't mind a sequel so long as they keep what worked and excise what didn't. There's a fine story here, ripe for franchising. This very well could be a slow start to an epic actioner. You see, the thing is, John Carter is a frustrating film: I neither like it or hate it. I sat there, sometimes interested, sometimes not, and then I went home. What the matter comes down to is potential. In this situation, John Carter did not live up to its potential as a movie, but the story does still have the potential and room for growth.
John Carter: 2 1/2 out of 5