Saturday, March 17, 2012

Overlooked Gems #26: John Carter

Grade: 69 (B)

Pixar Studios has been one of the most dependable sources of intelligent popcorn entertainment of the past twenty years (the Cars movies notwithstanding), and lately the talented directors working there have tried to break into live-action filmmaking. Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) made the best popcorn film of last year with his live-action debut Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol, and now Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) has made his with John Carter.

The film is based on the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (more famous for Tarzan), the first in a series which has served as inspiration to Flash Gordon, Superman, Star Wars, and Avatar (the last one’s overrated, but I digress). But while the series has inspired a number of successful film series, John Carter has been a troubled production: the film moved from director to director (Robert Rodriguez, Jon Favreau and Kerry Conron) before falling into Stanton’s lap, it has one of the worst marketing campaigns in recent memory, and its release last week was greeted with lukewarm (and occasionally scathing) reviews and poor box-office receipts. It looks like John Carter is on its way to be a financial catastrophe. It’s a shame, really: while the film is deeply flawed on script and casting levels, it is nonetheless one of the most ambitious popcorn films in recent memory, and it deserves to be seen.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran prospecting for Gold. He has clashed with both Apache tribes and United States soldiers, whose commanding officer (Bryan Cranston) doesn’t take too kindly to the fact that Carter fought for the Confederacy. Through an extraordinary series of events, Carter is transported to Mars (or Barsoom, as the Natives call it), a planet with a much richer atmosphere than we’ve been led to believe. There are two major races on Mars: the Tharks, a green-skinned, four-armed species who live off the land (modeled after Native Americans), and the Red Martians, who look closer to humans and have more advanced technology.

Carter is captured by the Tharks, led by Tars Tarkus (voiced by Willem Dafoe), who displays great curiosity in Carter’s existence and ability to jump to great heights (due to the lower gravity compared to Earth). Carter is also caught between the warring Red Martian cities of Helium (yes, I know) and Zodanga, led by the vicious Sab Than (Dominic West). Sab Than has agreed to stop the war if Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) marries him. Carter agrees to help Dejah band fight Sab Than and his army if she helps him get back to Earth. They soon find that Sab Than is being manipulated by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), leader of the mysterious Thern race.

Anyone confused by the plot: you’re not alone (and this is the condensed plot). Science-fiction is a difficult genre to pull off: it often involves strange worlds, creatures, and complex mythologies, and audiences can get lost if everything isn’t explained. Star Wars and The Matrix start in the middle of the action, introduce their protagonists (both outsiders), and bring the heroes to the action and explain the world to the outsiders. John Carter starts in the middle of an action sequence, but it also follows the example of David Lynch’s disastrous adaptation of Dune by giving too much information at once without explaining what anything means. Worse, the film has a clumsy framing device that makes sense by the end of the film but mostly makes the early-going clunky and confusing. Even as the story becomes more involving later on, too many ideas and plot points are poorly explained and remain confusing as the film goes on. Things get too complicated too quickly and the through-line isn’t as tightly structured as it needs to be.

The script also fails to create very many compelling characters. Collins isn’t a bad actress, but Dejah doesn’t stand out as a love interest the way Princess Leia and Lois Lane might- she’s tough, but she blends with Zoe Saldana’s character from Avatar. Most of the supporting characters aren’t very memorable. Even the better-defined characters don’t work particularly well: the film needs a strong Darth Vader-esque villain, and while Matai Shang has potential, Strong has played too many villains in the past (Sherlock Holmes, for example) and this character doesn’t stand out. John Carter himself is miscast: Kitsch isn’t a bad actor (he’s not a dead center the same way Sam Worthington was in Avatar), but his gruffness feels forced and he doesn’t have the natural scruffiness or swagger the character needs (Harrison Ford would have killed this thirty years ago). Only Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas is particularly memorable, and he’s sidelined early on.

Why, then, isn’t the film a complete disaster? Two words: Andrew Stanton. The film doesn’t move as gracefully as Stanton’s Pixar films, but the film shares their great sense of discovery and play, and after a difficult opening the film gains momentum. When Carter is captured by the soldiers on earth, early exposition scenes get broken up by Carter’s multiple escape attempts in a clever and funny way. When Carter arrives on Mars, he has to get used to the changed gravitational pull in one of the most purely joyful scenes in recent memory (if only Kitsch knew how to play the moment…). Stanton directs the action scenes with great imagination and clarity, and the film perfectly combines eye-popping visuals with real locations (Utah standing in for Mars). It’s unfortunate that such an ambitious film is bogged down with a sloppy script, inadequate casting, and paper-thin characters, but Stanton has created a lively piece of cinema that deserves better than it’s getting.

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  1. That framing device is sad. It's an glorious payoff, but that set-up is dull as hell. Would it be so bad if he hacked out that action prologue?

    Also, it was the lower gravity, not his bone density that allowed him to jump.

    1. I'm not quite sure how I managed to mix that up. Apparently I never took 2nd grade science. Anyway, thanks, and fixed.

  2. The real question is how badly do you want a Woola?