Monday, June 11, 2012

John Carter (2012)

     I get it now.  I understand how Disney's John Carter (2012) failed to resonate with audiences and ended up as the most costly film venture in recent memory, surpassing Waterworld (1995) but not Heaven's Gate (1980) (because Disney still exists) when it comes to huge budget disasters.  There was much chatter that if Disney had simply gone with Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars (1917) as the tile and advertised it in a serious manner (just where did Disney spend $100 million when the supposed target audience was barely aware of the movie, and not at all of its premise).  I think the fundamental flaw with John Carter is that so many other films have already borrowed from the concept that it cannot help but look and feel derivative.
     Now, I am not a Burroughs fan.  According to Dean R. Koontz (from his 1972 book Writing Popular Fiction), Burroughs was the most translated author of the 20th Century (again, through '72), so there were undoubtedly fans out there at one point.  My exposure to him has been having the first two Tarzan books read to me (it was the whole class who got this treatment, and it happened in the 6th grade, so I still find it a little creepy) and the various film and TV incarnations of Tarzan.  I am aware of much of the art inspired by the John Carter stories, and people started making Tharks, thoats, white apes, Dejah Thoris, and John Carter animations for use in Civ III in coincidence with the movie's eventual release (most of these being converted from an existing game it seems).  There should have been an interest in the character, but it also appears that people who are into the stories that brought adventure Sci-Fi into the 20th Century are about as numerous (and as self-important) as diehard Jazz enthusiasts.  It is cool to see the futuristic fantasy images in a painting (I have not added any of the Barsoomian units to my Civ III games, though I have thought of using Dejah Thoris animation for the king unit for my civilization of Amazons), but I don't know how smart it is to design a film around of couple of cool images.
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris
     To be fair, when those shots to pop up in the movie, there is some undeniable charm and simultaneous cool factor immediately accessible to the viewer.  In brief snippets, director Andrew Stanton and the thirteen person art direction team have provided a glimpse into not just the soul of the story, but why it should be so appealing to everyone.  However, these are just snippets, and largely supplied by Lynn Collins ability to give the impression of a painting come to life (though not forced to wear a metal bikini or go topless – not unsurprising for a Disney release).  These cannot overcome the obvious weaknesses the keep showing themselves.
     Let us first consider the casting of Taylor Kitsch.  I am willing to admit my complete unfamiliarity with him prior to seeing John Carter, but with this, Battleship (2012), and the minimally viewed Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) as his major roles, I am hoping that his days as a forced-upon-the-audience-leading-man are over.  He isn't a very good actor (not terrible or irredeemable), and spends much of John Carter fighting against a wig that changes color and looks like somebody glued rough shorn  doll hair to his head and asked him to let it lifelessly dangle whenever possible.  It is also readily apparent that Kitsch did a lot of working out during the length of filming as his musculature changes depending upon when the scene was shot.  This isn't a huge deal, but many directors and actors learn to hide the early stages with less definition with clothing.  Stanton decides to put a fit (but not yet buff) Kitsch into the shirtless scenes right off the bat.  I found it a little distracting, but at the same time I am willing to admit this is a nit that needs no picking.  Had I any rooting interest in the actor, I am sure I would have ignored it.  But because I found Kitsch to be unable to make Carter a compelling character (I am going to have a few things to say about the writing in this regards), his shortcomings screamed out to me. 
     Next, let us ponder why the need to insert Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character in the movie.  Having not the books, I have no knowledge of whether this is appropriate.  It didn't feel like it was, and the result is the forcing the obvious fiction into the reality of the man who wrote the story.  Add to that that Burroughs seems like a bit of a geeky loser who would not have anything in common with his brooding uncle (yet the two somehow share a close relationship?).  Burroughs the character seems to exist as an excuse to have the story related (this is more appropriate to late 18th and early 20th Century fiction, but keeps cropping up in recent films as screenwriters apparently feel that a story cannot exist on its own), and then to set-up the least exciting climax possible.
     Stanton had help writing the screenplay for John Carter in the form of Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon.  Andrews also has a credit on Pixar's upcoming film Brave (2012), which may be more his speed as he largely has worked in animation.  Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of books like Wonder Boys (1995) and The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007; I started this book in 2008 and quickly abandoned it, wondering what the critics, and my brother, saw as being so praiseworthy).  I blame Chabon – without any evidence beyond my brief exposure to him – for importing the tropes and clichés from other science fiction stories into John Carter.  I am sure that the thought was to make a more mature but relatable tale, but it felt more like an unholy amalgam of ideas that didn't quite work in other films.  From Therns that closely resemble the Necromongers of The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), to the battle in the Thark arena that looks like it was excised from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), and awkward sky-bike piloting that borrows first from Return of the Jedi (1983) and then Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).  At some point it doesn't matter if Burroughs had these moments in the original story or not; good screenwriting, in combination with effective direction, would ensure that the movie would aspire to do more than to ape that which has gone before.  If you can look at the moving city of Zodanga and not immediately form an unfortunate associate with Wild Wild West (1999), then you are carrying less film-viewing baggage than I am.
     The John Carter character retains his service to the Confederacy, which may be the kind of fidelity I could have done without.  If one is unaware of the popularity of the the post-Civil War rebel turned anti-hero, I would direct you towards the legend (largely through the dime novelization) of Jesse James.  Joss Whedon milked the same teat in coming up with Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly (2002-03).  Personally, I am about as anti-CSA as one is going to get.  The idea of Southern honor is a joke that too many people appear to take seriously.  I can't fault the writers for not taking liberty with this aspect of the story, but my preference would have been to just make him a Civil War vet and leave it at that.  But then we wouldn't have the least funny and most repeated joke in the movie, where Carter is referred to as Virginia. 
     Since it is a Disney film, there has to be at least one part of it that screams for merchandising.  That would be the Barsoomian lizard/slug dog, Woola.  Much like Teddy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) or Muffit II from the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-79), Woola seems like the toy/pet that everybody would want to have.  Despite myself, Woola was the character I cared most about in John Carter.  Perhaps it is because their is no fake political machinations or manufactured angst driving the little beast.  Woola, despite seeming to exist wholly in the realm of computer constructed pixels, felt like the most honest of all the films inhabitants.  It also had the cute factor dialed to maximum, and that should appeal to all but the most hardhearted.
     Now, I have spent several paragraphs bitching about the problems with John Carter while giving it little praise.  I feel this is where I should point out the strengths (other than Woola).  It is a serviceable movie.  It looks good, better than most of the other movies set on Mars made in the last 20 years.  Strange that all of those movies lost money, because I would think it would discourage studios from revisiting it with inflated budgets.  The main fault is that it doesn't feel like something that one would think much of a week after having seen it.  Part of that is the result of the Blockbuster-ization (and now Netflix-ization) of movie watching.  Even mega-blockbusters are treated as being disposable, and when films become cotton candy instead of food, they achieve the result of momentary distraction with no lasting value.  John Carter doesn't carry the weight it should because, it would seem, Stanton and the rest of the crew only know how to do big and familiar.  Had most of the movie been done on a smaller, more intimate scale (it would still need a huge budget and lots of special effects), then the larger moments would be intensified.  As it is they play out as filler pieces, killing time until a predictable battle that itself feels more like how the House Harkonnen assault on Arrakeen would have looked if there had been a budget for it in any adaptation of Dune (1965). 
     Too much seems borrowed (even what may have been original to the story in 1917) to make John Carter feel like its own movie.  And if it isn't its own movie, then it cannot succeed as a momentary blockbuster.  So, I get it.  I get why it didnt draw a large audience.  But I am sure that the curious will give it a chance at home.

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