John Carter (2012)

2014 #131
Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

2 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.

6 thoughts on “John Carter (2012)

  1. Good post – I read Michael Sellers’s book a little while ago, the ‘Gods of Hollywood’ volume about the mismarketing of this film. Whilst Sellers made some assiduous points about where the media handling of this film went widely off-mark (basically it’s a guide on how not to promote a movie), I have had the ‘fortune’ of seeing John Carter, like you – and as Sellers suggests it would be – hoping to catch a misunderstood classic, and it was a lot less than that.

    My main frustration was how boring it turned out to be – given the source material and the ability of modern effects to turn it into a sort of reality, it was just so disengaging and I couldn’t have cared less what happened. That’s not even a criticism of the liberal CGI, more the messy plotting and paper-thin characters. A real pity this one. It could and indeed should have been a total blast.

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    • I hadn’t heard of the Sellers book before, but it looks worth a read. I’ll try to remember to check that out, thanks.

      I agree that the storytelling is the film’s main problem, which obviously is pretty fundamental. There are so many good ideas and bits, though, you feel like someone could’ve strung together something more engaging. Or maybe it really has been stripmined by Star Wars (and others) and never stood a chance.

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      • What you say about the John Carter story being stripmined is bang on, and something Sellers went on about. Ever since Burroughs wrote his books, others have picked at the various bits in it, most notably the Flash Gordon serials, of which George Lucas was a big fan, leading to further mimicry. The film’s scene in the arena, for instance, looks like a rip-off of the one from Attack of the Clones, but in reality it came from the Carter books originally.

        Doesn’t change the main criticism of the film, mind. I remember one scene where the heroine is basically explaining the backstory to Carter – it went on and on and on, and I just lost any interest. Shame.

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        • The “it looks like a rip-off” issue is certainly a problem for The General Public: I had a bit of a look at Twitter while it was on TV and there were a (depressing) number of comments about how it was all snatched from Star Wars (the arena scene in particular). Even when you know the truth, the way it’s shot and designed makes it hard not to remember other films.

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  2. Agh. You didn’t like it!

    Oh well.Its a divisive movie, I’ll admit, although funnily enough everyone at work who has seen it rather liked it and am surprised when I tell them how much of a flop it turned out to be.I’m not suggesting its perfect, but I actually prefer it to Guardians of the Galaxy.There’s more ‘heart’ to it. Its almost old-school, with a lovely thematic score.

    I’ve always thought the prologue on Mars is awkward and not needed, better to have it grounded on Earth first and then leap to Mars. Perhaps if it was inferred that its the Mars of the distant past (Carter travelling through time as well as space) might have made it more palatable to modern sensibilities? I wonder if an Extended Cut (had the film been successful enough to have warranted it) might have ‘fixed’ peoples concerns regards characterisation. We’ll never know. I just wish the franchise might have been given a second film to improve/cement itself, but once Disney acquired Lucasfilm and Star Wars it was dead in the water. Shame.

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    • Divisive it certainly is. As I was saying to Mike about watching the Twitter reaction, the other thing I observed was about equal numbers declaring their love for it and labelling it “the worst film they’d ever seen” (which it surely isn’t). I don’t know if it has enough love to bring about a reversal in the consensus someday, but maybe.

      Definitely agree about the prologue. I don’t get this obsession filmmakers have with making sure, for example, a sci-fi movie begins with something sci-fi-y is going on. “Look, it’s Mars! Promise we’ll get there later. Now, here’s half-an-hour on Earth.” You need that kind of thing on TV, to stop people flicking channel, but surely once you’ve got someone into the cinema, the vast majority are going to sit it out, whatever happens? And they’ve seen the trailer, so that serves the teaser’s purpose.

      I guess it was also included to provide some kind of background clarity, but I felt that if anything it did the opposite — I wasn’t completely sure if Mark Strong and Dominic West were meant to be the heroes or the villains until they turned up again later.

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