Sunday, August 26, 2012

John Carter

You've probably heard about John Carter's box office performance, even if you didn't care to see the film itself.  It was a bomb.  A dud.  A disaster.  Disney announced that, between the production budget and advertising costs, it lost $200 million by making John Carter.  I'm not exactly sure how that math works, since every source I have found pegs the budget at $250-300 million and theatrical and DVD sales combining for nearly $300 million, but I suppose that advertising could account for the significant difference.  Even accepting John Carter as a financial failure doesn't mean it's actually a bad movie, though.
An alien with a prosthetic leg on her back doesn't help, though

I don't normally focus much on the advertising campaigns for movies, but check out these trailers for John Carter:

This is the teaser trailer from July 2011, which was shown before some that Summer's biggest blockbusters.  An interesting choice of music (Peter Gabriel covering the Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage") gives this a moody, romantic feel.  Opening with the title character apparently dead and a direct reference to author and Carter-creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, it continues with some scenes reminiscent of Star Wars ("Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" and destroyed settlements on Tatooine) and flashes of battles, Victorian dress, and an homage to movie Westerns.  And then Taylor Kitsch jumps very high, which is enough to impress the disembodied voice of Willem Dafoe.
And his disembodied voice is hard to please!  Remember Spider-Man 2?
This trailer feels like an idea salad, where a bunch of stuff was thrown in together and presented by a very serious French waiter.  Well, at least the weird tattoo design for the logo is kind of cool.  If I had to guess, based only on this trailer, I would assume that John Carter was a science fiction romance with swashbuckling overtones.  Not the most bankable idea, but an early March release date means several weeks without any serious competition in theaters.  It might not "wow," but it didn't look stupid, at least.

Okay.  Let's see what we have in January 2012.  Some sort of arena battle, some large-scale battles with aliens, and a rousing ripoff Braveheart-style speech.  With the added gravitas from a symphonic version of "Kashmir," this looks like an epic sci-fi action movie.  Well, except for the exasperated look on Taylor Kitsch's face when he's fighting the bantha white bear-thing.  I wonder what happened to those romantic overtones?
Huh.  Attempt #3, aired less than two weeks before the premiere, appears to be dropping the epic pretensions for an all-out science-fiction war movie.  John Carter uses chains, swords, rocks and guns to fight a variety of evil.  The last set of scenes didn't make a whole lot of sense, though, as it was obviously spliced from different parts of the movie.  Why would they do that?  Why would they keep changing their focus with this ad campaign?  How bad can John Carter be?!?

John Carter is the tale of (surprise!) John Carter.
Because 13 seasons were not enough
The movie opens with the announcement of Carter's death to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara); after the funeral, Burroughs is given his uncle's journal, from which the rest of the tale is told.  In the post-Civil War Wild West, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) hints at his tortured past while a military muckety-muck (Bryan Cranston) lists some of the reasons the audience should think Carter is a bad-ass (great solider, awards, etc.).  While Cranston is doing this, John Carter is undermining his legendary value by getting the crap kicked out of himself, over and over again.  And then (more or less), he wakes up on Mars, where the lower gravity gives him incredible leaping powers and super-strength.  He is quickly taken in by the barbaric Thark tribe (or race, or's not too clear), a large, four-armed and green-skinned group, led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe).  Soon after, John Carter notices a battle between spaceships; it is between the humanoid cities of Helium and Zodanga (obviously), so the Tharks don't really have a dog in the fight and are willing to ignore it.  Not John Carter.  Not when he can save a chick in a Princess Leia metal bikini and have her turn out to be Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) of the great city of Helium. 
Metal bikinis: the most exploitative protection available
At this point, all John Carter wants is to go home and continue getting hit over the head by Bryan Cranston's men, but Dejah's plight gradually grabs his attention.  It turns out the the leader of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West), has somehow gotten his mitts on a superweapon and could destroy the mighty city of Helium.  He will pardon the city if he can build a truce between the two eternally-warring nations by marrying Dejah.  She refuses and runs, because the freedom of the individual is paramount over the livelihood of millions.  But it's not that simple!  There is a secretive group of beings, the Thern, who are pulling the strings of Martian history from behind the scenes, and they are the ones planning the wedding of Dejah and Sab Than.  Why is a clandestine Martian race with powers above and beyond everyone else putting so much effort into a royal wedding?  I blame residual William and Kate fever.  Whatever the reason, the wedding must happen.  But can the Heliumiites trust the Zodangarians?  What about the Tharks?  And what's up with the Therns?  And how does a former Confederate solider with mad hops fit into all this?  Most importantly, when did "jumping high and far" become an invaluable weapon of war?
You'll need to look harder than that to figure it out

The acting in John Carter isn't bad.  It's not great, but it is certainly on par with other epic sci-fi tales.  Taylor Kitsch doesn't exude charm or charisma, but he makes up for it by doing his best Batman Bale Voice impression.  There are moments, though, where Kitsch shows a bit of promise --- usually when he's not doing epically serious things --- and is fairly likable.  Unfortunately, those bits are too far between, and his overall performance is pretty bland.  Honestly, my favorite scenes for him were when he kept trying to escape Bryan Cranston in the beginning.  Lynn Collins' role was pretty stereotypical --- a tough princess with a soft heart --- and she didn't add much to the role.
Plunging necklines don't count?
Dominic West continues to play only awful villains on film, and his work here is along the lines of everything else he's done in the big screen.  Think slimy and sleazy, and you've got the picture; it's too bad, really, because he's fantastic on The WireMark Strong also plays a role typical for him; he's a bad, bad man with little regard for life.
"It's only acting if I'm faking it"
The rest of the live-action cast doesn't do much.  Bryan Cranston's talents are wasted with his bit part.  Daryl Sabara is barely in the film.  Ciarán Hinds could have been replaced with a frowny-faced emoticon.  James Purefoy had a few lines and Art Malik was onscreen barely long enough to make me think "Oh hey, True Lies guy...!"  And then there are the Tharks.
Still prettier than Dafoe
Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Hayden Church, Jon Favreau, and David Schwimmer are some of the recognizable names in the voice cast.  Granted, Schwimmer and Favreau are just cameos, but that's still more talent that you might expect from CGI-based roles.  I have no problem with any of the voice actors.  I always like Dafoe's voice, so he stuck out the most for me, but it was decent work, all around.

While the acting wasn't great, I've enjoyed movies with worse acting.  The direction in John Carter is one of the weak points for the film.  Co-writer/director Andrew Stanton didn't really know where he wanted to go with this film.  It certainly has epic aspirations.  It certainly wants to shows some romance.  It also wants to have huge CGI battle sequences.  And yet, at its core, this is ultimately a family-friendly adventure movie, along the lines of an Indiana Jones.  There are a few scenes with slapstick comedy (Carter learning to walk on Mars), there is a cute pet (the super-fast dog-thing), and the hero takes more than a few humorous lumps (especially in the beginning).  These pieces don't meld together, like ingredients in a soup.  They are like jigsaw pieces that were re-cut and assembled by a stubborn child, regardless of where they actually fit or if they make sense.
Example: epic rescue scene or mowing a space lawn?
Stanton's failure is not complete, but kind of like the Star Wars prequels; yeah, it sucked, but there were a couple of cool ideas.  The aliens and the world of Mars were well-developed enough so that I was not constantly reminded of the many films that have borrowed from this material in the last 40 years.  It just wasn't very interesting.
Even the actors can't stand this script
The plot is over-dramatic.  The acting is not very compelling.  The script is mediocre at best, with an unhealthy dose of unneeded complexity and unintentional hilarity.  My favorite line in the whole film is "Beans.  The first item ***dramatic pause*** is beans."  That wouldn't have been a deal-breaker, but the action scenes were pretty tame, giving this movie absolutely nothing exceptional to stand on.
Except the costume choices

The ultimate sin of John Carter is that it is pretty boring.  Is that the fault of the source material, as some have claimed?  I don't think so.  There's enough in this movie that almost works to make me think that it could have been the flagship title that Andrew Stanton obviously hoped for.  Had it played up the adventure angle more and the dramatic epic-ness less, this could have been a fun sci-fi pulp romp.  But it is presented as an epic, and it just doesn't work.  This is one of those films where you watch it and are constantly reminded how much it cost to produce.  I don't think I've seen a movie since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen where I was so frequently surprised by the ratio of the film's scope to the size of it's inevitably tiny audience.  It's a failure, but it's not all that bad.  Which actually makes it less fun to watch, unfortunately.  It's not cool enough to legitimately enjoy, but it's not bad enough to enjoy while drunk.  It's just...John Carter.  And that is a stupid name for a movie.

On a closing note, I never realized how many things I like have been influenced by Burroughs' work.  Never mind all the film influences (Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, etc.) --- one of my favorite comic book issues growing up was a direct homage, and I never even realized it!  Here's the cover to Excalibur (Vol. 1) #16:
Metal bikinis?  Check.  The title "Kurt Wagner - Warlord of ?"  Check.  And the story involves four-armed aliens, a beautiful princess, and a strange hero destined to rule them all.  It's not exactly Alan Moore or anything, but it was a fun issue that still holds up.  It's one of the few times where comic book Nightcrawler was as cool as X2: X-Men United Nightcrawler was, and it's cute seeing a character (Kitty Pryde) who is uncomfortable in a metal bikini.  Good work, Chris Claremont.  Now take a look at one of the many covers made for The Warlord of Mars:
Man, Frank Frazetta could paint.  It's not a big deal by any means, but stumbling across this image and the nostalgia it sparked in me almost made me care about this intellectual property.  Almost.

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