Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: John Carter (Erich's Take)

Going to the movies is like watching a magic show. We agree to suspend our disbelief for a couple of hours, and in return we expect to see something amazing. Whether that something is a levitating handkerchief or a full-scale alien invasion, we don't care that it isn't real as long as the performer keeps us enthralled. Unfortunately, this delicate spell is easily broken. Ask anyone who has ever been stuck near a group of rowdy teenagers in a crowded theater, or so far to the left of the stage that they can see the magician's secret pocket. Poof! A willing entrant to the land of magical wonders has been transformed into a grumpy non-believer, wondering if it's possible to get his money back.

There's nothing like falling under a movie's spell. John Carter cast that spell on a lot of people. Despite mixed reviews and disappointing box office returns, a strong word-of-mouth campaign has sprung up to defend director Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's story A Princess on Mars. I hope Disney appreciates this grassroots campaign, because so far it's been more successful their own multi-million dollar ad blitz. I was excited to see the film, not just because I like Stanton's first two movies, Finding Nemo and WALL*E, but also because there's nothing more exciting than finding treasure in someone else's trash pile.

The movie begins on Mars -- or as its inhabitants call it, "Barsoom" -- with a voiceover that introduces us to two warring Martian factions: the power-hungry Zodangans and the scrappy Heliums. Forget little green men (for now, at least). These Martians are big, shirtless white guys, hefting swords and flying insectoid air ships. The only real difference is that the Helium folks wear red capes while the warriors of Zodanga wear blue. Oh, and the leader of the blue guys, the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West), has been given a magic death ray by the Therns, a group of bald shape-shifters who interfere in interplanetary events for their own amusement.

We meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) in 1881 New York City, dodging a sinister-looking stranger on the way to send a telegram to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, urging him to come quickly. Carter is gone when Edgar arrives, but he has left behind a journal that tells the story of his journey from Army man to treasure hunter to interplanetary explorer who spends most of his time on, trying to find a way home.

On Barsoom, Carter can jump high and far, the result of lower gravity and high bone density. This ability fascinates the first creatures he meets, a race of green, four-armed warriors called Tharks. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Defoe), takes a shining to Carter and adopts him as a pet. Eventually, Carter encounters the human Barsoomians, saving Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) from Zondangan attack. Thoris is running away from her father, who has agreed to marry her off to Sab Than in exchange for peace. Following in the footsteps of any number of romantic comedies, Carter and the princess go from hating each other to falling in love, for reasons that have more to do with both of them being attractive humans than any tangible emotional connection. After all, who else is Carter going to fall for, a Thark? All the while, we're shown how much John Carter misses his dead wife, first with a lingering close-up of his wedding ring, and later with a scene that cuts back and forth between Carter on Mars and a flashback to Earth. Carter and Dejah Thoris discuss their feelings for each other, his desire to go home, and her desire that he save her people in a series of awkward and overlong conversations that include lines like "it feels like I have always known you" and "a man may change his metal, but he cannot change his heart."

Dialogue is a big problem in John Carter, which is surprising since the screenplay is partially credited to Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon. I can only assume the cheesiest lines were added in haste to replace ones Chabon had written about 1940s superheroes punching Hitler in the mouth. The biggest issue with the dialogue is that there's so much of it. Climactic action scenes like the ape-on-Carter-action shown on the movie poster feel oddly truncated, and yet there's plenty of time for people to prattle on, trying (and mostly failing) to explain Barsoom's complex sociopolitical landscape. Having never read the source material, I imagine the tongue-twisting names and dense mythology can be blamed on Burroughs, but it doesn't excuse Stanton from forcing the audience to spend a good chunk of the movie trying to figure it all out for themselves.

Even more confusing, the two warring factions look the same: buff gladiator-types with swirling red tattoos, incomprehensible names, and nearly identical airships. It's not too bad when everyone is standing around, but when the fighting starts they become a mass of flashing swords and bulging biceps. It begs the bigger question: why is Mars populated by human gladiators in the first place? Why, given the film's massive budget, does it feel like they skipped the design process in favor of making the cheapest costumes possible? The film takes place on Mars. The director has the best CGI animators in the business on speed dial. Why are the Tharks the only otherworldly beings on this other world?

The similarities between the Red and Blue Barsoomians make more sense in the context of the Mars civil war at the center of Burroughs' stories, a war that mirrors the one John Carter has just finished fighting on Earth. Unfortunately, the film glosses over that meaty bit of symmetry, sidelining what could have been the thematic core of the film. Instead of a story about brother fighting against brother, it's the story of a guy who can jump really high and his favorite she-Martian. John Carter is a frustrating film because it misses so many opportunities. The inventive aspects of the film get lost among science fiction cliches. For all I know, Burroughs invented those cliches. It doesn't matter. Stanton never finds a balance between mythology and action, never gives us a reason to care about the characters. The film swings between overstuffed set-pieces and scenes that just feel empty. For every cool Martian ruin and exotic CGI creature, there's someone wearing a generic tunic, swinging a generic sword, in a generic desert that looks as much like Arizona as it does the Red Planet.

I wish I could write a glowing review of John Carter. I'd love to stick it to film snobs and join the film's champions in their Martian paradise, but I can't. Although it's not bad enough to deserve the "Ishtar on Mars" label some critics have thrown around, I doubt anyone but the biggest fans will care about the film by year's end. If Carter resonates with you, by all means tell people to go see it. You were dazzled by the magician, and there's nothing more wonderful than that. I envy you. Me, I'm thinking about how to get my money back.


  1. Good review. Kitsch could have definitely been a little bit more charismatic but the flick still works due to amazing special effects and some really fun and exciting action. Sad thing is that this flick was made for $250 million and won’t make any of it back. Not a must-see by any means but still a good one to check out for the fun of it.

  2. Saw this Saturday morning (matinee pricing) at a fairly-packed Times Square theater and the movie went over really well. While all the flaws Erich makes are valid I think "John Carter" overcomes them because, like Brad Bird in "M:I-Ghost Protocol," Andrew Stanton directs the hell out this flick (Eric Zumbrunnen's editing zips along) so you don't have too long to rationalize that what you're watching doesn't make sense because you're having too much fun. And even though there's little here we haven't seen before (action bits and pieces from the new "Star Wars" trilogy, from the arena battles to the racing-like flying contraptions) Stanton injects the scenes with the fun and excitement that George Lucas long ago forgot how to inject into his space opera epics. Yes, it cost $250 million (and lost Disney 200 of those millions in a costly write-up) but as they usually say, the money is all up on the screen for you to see. Who knew Pixar would be the new farming venue from which good directors of live-action blockbuster action/adventure movies would come from?

    My main beef with "John Carter" (not enough to sink the movie but a constant reminder of its ultimate status as a troubled production) is with the Tharks. They're like the Navi race in "Avatar" and any in a gazillion movies/TV shows/books (most of them, ironically, inspired by Burrough's 'Barsoom' series of books) that seem savage at first but, with the lead of an above-average outsider (usually a Caucasian male like John Carter), rise against more technologically-advanced opposition and win in the end (sorry for spoiling, but really?). I don't like their CGI design, the whole 'Sola is Tars Tarkas' real daughter' angle, the so-predictable-I-cheered-when-it-was-over-really-quickly Tal Hajus challenge (think Indy with the sword fighter in "Raiders..."). Thankfully the supporting human cast is aces. James Purefoy could have stolen the movie if his Kantos Kan character had been given more screen time, but the few times he's on you enjoy him. I'd love it if Mark Strong one day appears on a role that isn't just two-dimensional attractive evil. But, for the most part, the human-looking Martians act like they're in "Gladiator" or HBO's "Rome" than a space flick (which sells the illusion of this being otherwordly).

    Taylor Kitsch (who sounds like the guy that did Batman's voice on the 1990's animated cartoon) knows what kind of movie he's in and doesn't overdo it. His best scene (the montage when we cut back and forth between his slaughter of bad guys and his tragic backstory back on Earth) is, not surprisingly, a physical one in which lack of words enhance the illusion. I wish his John Carter was a little more stunned/surprised when he finds out where he is and how he got there because he goes from being an enslaved prisoner to hero in too fast a story beat. Lynn Collins is fucking awesome though, a sexy-looking woman who looks like she belongs when she's dressed as a Princess as well as wearing an armor suit with sword. The last act of the movie (which seems inspired by 1980's "Somewhere In Time," which I liked) wouldn't work if you didn't buy that Carter and Dejah Thoris have the hots for each other.

    So, see John Carter at least once in theaters before it disappears (I saw it in 2D and see no need for a 3D rewatch). It's the type of fun escapism that Hollywood has forgotten how to make, and when they do make it it's either a misguided attempt like "Sahara" or an expensive $250 million misfire (which "John Carter" is not because, again, THE MONEY IS ON THE SCREEN).

  3. I'm honestly glad you enjoyed the movie, JM. JOHN CARTER didn't click for me, but it doesn't deserve to be remembered as a failure. Especially if it hurts Stanton's future film projects.

    A lot of the things you loved about the movie, I hated. The Tal Hajus conclusion typifies one of my biggest problems. The action is over way too quickly, while the scenes of characters talking go on forever. You saw the budget up there on the screen. I looked at the generic costumes and sets and thought it looked awfully cheap for such an expensive movie. That's probably why I liked the Tharks (despite the good points you raised). At least they look like creatures from another planet.

    Out of curiosity, have you read the books? From the reviews I've read, people who read Burroughs' stories seem to enjoy the movie more than those of us who haven't.

    1. I saw it this weekend, and I don't really disagree with anything in Erich's review (which was GREAT), but I still came down on the side of liking it. It's a mess, but a mess I found myself ultimately enjoying for whatever reason.

      I have a theory (I float it on this week's podcast) that a big part of the reason I liked the movie is because it was first out of the gate with that big F/X-driven Summer movie epic feel. Coupled with the 80 degree heat in MARCH here in Chicago, it was exactly the movie I was in the mood for. I wonder if the movie were to come out in the middle of summer (when I've been seeing stuff just like it for weeks) would my reaction be different? Maybe a second viewing will change my mind. For now, though, I'm a fan, and feel a little protective of it when it's being kicked to death by the likes of Nikki Finke, who seems to really be relishing its failure.

      I haven't read any of the books yet, but they're free for Kindle so I just downloaded the first three.

    2. ^^^ "Book of Eli" effect in full swing for "John Carter." We really like it now (March), but will we remember it at all come late December/early Jan. '13? 'It was too hot to be outside so I'd rather be inside a cool AC'ed theater watching JC' isn't exactly a pull quote Disney will put on the DVD cover. :-P

  4. I read the first novel ages ago (translated in Spanish) when I was a kid, but I honestly don't remember most of it. Funny, every other book I read at the time I remember but not 'A Princess on Mars' because my little brain didn't quite buy the bullshit Burroughs was selling. And it's sad that, even though the 'John Carter on Mars' IP has been around since forever and influenced countless media (including money-making machines like "Star Wars"), the movie came into being too late to cash-in on the type of fantasy story-telling it inspired on many others. Stanton will return (too much talent there to be wasted) but either his creative wings/budgets will be curtailed or he'll make sure there's a Tom Cruise or box-office insurance (a Disney IP, a 3D hook) to make sure his next project is a lot more like "M:I-Ghost Protocol" than "John Carter" (box office-wise).

    BTW, the same day I saw "John Carter" I saw an incomplete low-budget Polish sci-fi movie censored by the Polish communist government (filming was stopped before many scenes were shot back in the 70's) called "On the Silver Globe" (1988) by Andrzej Zulawski ( at a retrospective in Brooklyn. I fucking hated this thing (most batshit and pretentious flick I've ever seen, and at 166 min. running time about 160 minutes too long!) but it didn't help that, hours before, I saw a space fantasy epic that bent over and backwards trying at all possible moments to entertain me. "John Carter" doesn't stand out when compared with every other good space/fantasy movie of the modern era (post-"Star Wars"). Against art house crap from Poland that's (a) censored, (b) incomplete and (c) highfalutin to the tenth degree (though as part of the director's canon "On the Silver Globe" definitely fits in) "John Carter" is fucking "Citizen Kane." :-)

    1. Someone needs to come up with a film comparison theorem for which CITIZEN KANE is the only constant. It would make my job so much easier.

  5. I'm not even sure Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane. Unless I'm watching Citizen Kane, in which case Citizen Kane is CITIZEN KANE compared to Citizen Kane.

    1. Citizen Kane may not live up to Citizen Kane, but I' not sure the the idea is to compare things to Citizen Kane. A better idea is to find something that's just okay. Something watchable, but not great. Graffiti Bridge is my go-to comparison movie. If someone can tell me "This is better than Graffiti Bridge" then I know what I'm in for. If they say "This is worse than Graffiti Bridge" then I know I simply must see this, because I'm attracted to train wrecks.

      You make a scale, and then you can say "In some cases, I find Graffiti Bridge to be a more useful film than Citizen Kane." and watch people's heads pop.