Saturday, March 10, 2012

JOHN CARTER: Can Disney's Long-Gestating Adaptation Live Up to Its Source Material's Epic Legacy?


- JOHN CARTER has a lot to live up to. It's an adaptation of a classic, influential sci-fi story that has literally been in some form of development for decades. It's an attempt to kickstart a new live-action franchise for Disney - a huge, mega-budget movie that is going to have to make serious bank to turn a profit and justify sequels. It's a film that comes from quite the pedigree of talent: it's directed by Andrew Stanton, the man behind Wall-E, and it's co-written by the great novelist and purveyor of pulp fiction, Michael Chabon. So yes, even though the film's underwhelming marketing campaign likely turned off many, for me, John Carter was something to get really excited about. I had high hopes that this would be an under-the-radar dose of pre-summer awesomesauce - a geek-out worthy pulp sci-fi epic of the highest order. Sadly, on the Disney mega-blockbuster sliding scale, the film is perhaps a bit closer to Prince of Persia than Pirates of the Carribean.

From the get-go, JOHN CARTER has serious pacing problems. The movie starts by hurtling us into the midst of a battle on Mars, with so much going on that it's hard to process. Just as we're beginning to take it all in, we switch to 1880's New York, where a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (the real-life author of the John Carter stories, as well as Tarzan) finds that his uncle - John Carter - is dead. Among the items bequeathed to Edgar as part of John's will is a journal. And that journal serves as the movie's framing device, as we see the world-spanning story play out as Edgar reads it. The journal first places us years earlier, where we meet a young, brash John Carter (Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch) - a civil war vet who's now out in Arizona, prospecting for gold. Carter soon funds himself in the midst of a scuffle between the local cavalry and a tribe of Apaches. But even as tensions begin to escalate, Carter's situation takes a sudden turn for the weird. In the middle of a fire fight, Carter takes refuge in a cave, one thing leads to another, and - thanks to a strange alien device - Carter is transported to Mars. As was hinted at in the film's opening, things on Mars are a bit tense. There's two warring factions of human-like, red-skinned Martians, and another race of tall green aliens called Tharks that are caught in the middle. Now, Carter - who finds himself with superhuman strength and agility thanks to Mars' gravitational differences - must decide whether to use his powers to become the red planet's unlikely savior.

The various factions and politics of Mars, as well as the races, cultures, creatures, and jargon - it's all A LOT to take in. And the fact that the first act of the film is so dizzyingly paced doesn't help. There are a ton of things thrown at you, and it's easy to get lost or overwhelmed. But even if you manage to follow everything (good luck), the first half of John Carter still feels heavy on info-dumping and short on soul. Few if any of the characters register on an emotional level. A lot of this has to do not so much with the story itself but with *how* it's presented to us. For example, we get hints that Carter is a scarred man. He had to bury his wife and child at some point, and he's still not over that pain - that loss made him into a bit of a nihilist. And that right there is the germ of what could have been a really compelling character arc. The problem is, it's hinted at but barely addressed. We get these quick-cut flashes of John's wife and daughter, but there's no real emotion behind them. We are left to fill in a lot of the blanks about Carter. That's fine in theory, but unlike with, say, Liam Neeson in The Grey, Kitsch doesn't do a ton to sell us on our hero's supposedly tortured soul. We're supposed to believe, for example, that he has to overcome this great trauma before he can give in to his attraction to the lusty princess of Mars, Dejah. But you never buy it - Kitsch's 'tude-laden Carter seems ready to get with her from the first moment they meet. Part of the problem may be Kitsch. His Carter feels too much like some dude from 2012 and not enough like a classic, timeless hero out of the pages of a pulp novel. It's a shame that so few actors these days can capture that sort of epic hero tone. And yet, Lynn Collins does just that as Dejah. As the curvaceous princess of Mars, Collins kicks ass, looks good doing it, and does so with the perfect tone of Shakespearian gravitas mixed with pleasingly campy melodrama. Collins is easily the standout of the film. The only downside is that her badassery helps draw attention to Kitsch's relatively limp performance. You think back to the great epic hero actors of cinema - and you long for the likes of a Charlton Heston, Russell Crowe, or hell - Arnold Schwarzenegger - anyone with that sort of iconic man's-man charisma, to have been in this role.

To that point, the film has a lot of silliness that contributes to it feeling very all-over-the-place, tonally. I can see how the film's sensibility is in many ways a sort of Pixar-ish sensibility - there's a lot of cartoonish slapstick - and a lot of the film's scenes have a very animated-style, almost Looney Tunes-like quality in how they are composed. On one level, I can appreciate the goofy fun of a character like Woola - Carter's loyal, dog-like alien companion. But at the same time, there's so much slapstick silliness around Woola that it begins to take away from the dramatic weight of the movie. In an animated movie, you can get away with a lot more of that sort of thing. But this is a huge, live-action, would-be epic. And Stanton and co. already have to work hard to get us to buy into this crazy sci-fi world. Why make it even harder to swallow with such an overload of comic relief? Point being, the movie veers wildly from trying to be gritty and serious to being completely cartoonish. At one point towards the end of the film, for example, right as the tension builds to a crescendo, the movie completely kills all dramatic momentum by throwing in a totally unnecessary and super-lame comedic moment. Even the action is inconsistent tonally. Sometimes, Stanton gives us a brutal, God of War-esque arena battle, in which Carter gores a giant alien beast through the chest in violent fashion. Other times, we get cartoonish fight scenes that just seem to be missing 60's Batman-style "bang!" and "pow!" sound balloons. Ultimately, it felt to me like JOHN CARTER never truly settled on what sort of tone it wants to have. As is, it attempts to throw in Pirates-style slapstick and wit, Conan-style grittiness and violence, and Pixar-style whimsy. Combine that with the pacing issues, and the movie can start to feel like a bit of a mess.

That said, there really are a lot of great little nuggets of coolness in the film. I give credit to guys like Dominic West, Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong, and Willem Dafoe for really doing all they can to make their characters pop. These guys are all fantastic actors - they just don't get great characters to play. Dominic West in particular as the lead villain ... even though the performance was excellent, the character just felt pretty lacking and unmemorable. West's performance was nicely sinister ... it's just ... who is this guy, why is he so evil, what's his deal? It's not that we even need that much information - it's more that, man, for a villain who has so much dialogue, little of it is of much substance. I mean, I'd have been cool with a Thulsa Doom-esque badguy who, like James Earl Jones in Conan, just shows up, looks super badass, and barely speaks. But West, he doesn't even get a particularly cool or iconic look. West makes all the monologuing better than it has a right to be, but still - no kids are going to rush out to buy the action figure, you know? Meanwhile, Mark Strong plays a mysterious, shapeshifting alien who is sort of the master manipulator - kind of a cross between Emperor Palpatine, Galactus, and the Observers from Fringe. Strong, in general, is so great at being the badguy (please let there be one more Green Lantern movie so he can reprise his role as Sinestro). But, again, it takes so long to find out even basic info about his character and motivations ... that the reveals feel anticlimactic.

Okay, okay ... so that's a lot of ragging on the film. The thing is, despite my complaints, I did find it overall to be entertaining. There's a pretty solid sense of anything-can-happen fun here. Certain scenes in the movie also succeed at capturing the sort of old-school pulp-epic feel that you just don't see a lot in movies anymore. And really, it's the slower, quieter scenes - the ones that wouldn't have felt out of place in 70's or 80's sci-fi movies - that worked best. Certain parts of the movie are visually gorgeous, and sometimes, when the look of the film does evoke the old painted covers of a sci-fi pulp paperback, you can't help but geek out. Those epic moments are helped by the actors who convey the right tone to go along with the film's premise. Collins is a big part of that with her bravura performance. And I also give a lot of credit to Stanton and the film's designers. I didn't love a lot of the alien / creature design in the film, but I did absolutely love all of the world-building. The sets, the alien cityscapes, the costumes, the clothing, the technology - all of it looked awesome. Like I said, certain moments in the film had a very pleasing, almost painterly style to them that was evocative and cool.

On the flipside though - the aliens, the Tharks in particular, just looked super cartoony to me and rarely felt real or tangible - it was like an army of Jar Jars. Again, guys like Willem Dafoe gave their all to help bring their Thark characters to life, but I just never fully warmed to the character design. It's funny because this week alone, we've seen the passing of some of the great conceptual movie artists of all time in Ralph McQuarrie and Moebius. Guys who imbued movies like Star Wars and Tron with character design that ignited the imagination of generations. I didn't see a lot in John Carter that had that same spark. I give the movie credit for never feeling generic - if nothing else, this is some far-out stuff that will make kids used to crap like Transformers realize that there's far more under the sun. But again, it's less about originality and more about tone. The Tharks and others are all too silly and cartoony - they're never really eerie or scary. It's all dreams and no nightmares. It's way too much Pixar, not nearly enough Frank Frazetta.

John Carter does take a while to get going. And there's a bit too much of the "look Ma I can fly (or jump really high)" sort of scenes that fill every superhero movie (and that were recently knocked out of the park by Chronicle). But I will also say ... that the movie picks up bigtime in its third act. After a somewhat confusing, exposition-packed first hour-and-a-half or so, the final leg of the film sprints from one big action set piece to another, and Stanton seems to find his groove. The big final battles feel like a great wrap-up to some slightly better, more fleshed-out movie. But taken out of context, there is indeed some rip-roaring action to be found - nicely orchestrated by Stanton (if only the ending wasn't killed by the return of the lifeless Edgar Burroughs framing device).

One other point though - you can almost feel the push-and-pull of studio interference all over this movie, and I can't help but wonder to what extent the film got chopped up, rearranged, re-scripted, etc. by the studio. Even on a point as minor as the film's title, it feels like we're seeing the debate over what the movie should be called play out while watching. The fact that the movie closes by dramatically displaying the title "John Carter OF MARS" and *then* the plainer, official title, "John Carter," - it feels like a very deliberate middle finger to Disney and all of their focus group testing. Testing that left the movie with such a laughably generic title. It's funny, parts of the movie have that slightly awkward feeling of watching creative choices being debated before your eyes.

At the same time, you do sort of have to admire Andrew Stanton for making a movie that is so clearly out-there and complex to the point of being incomprehensible. There's no shortage of crazy sci-fi jargon here. The film doesn't compromise on sci-fi/fantasy nerdiness, with made-up languages, English dialogue laced with Martian (er, Barsoom) lingo, and ten Star Wars cantina scenes' worth of oddball creatures and other assorted weirdness. Again, that alone makes the movie feel refreshing in the age of the dumbed-down sci-fi blockbuster. And for that reason, I can see how some fanboys will latch onto the movie, if only because it never skimps on including every bit of Martian history, dialect, and apocrypha from the Burroughs books.

And because of that, John Carter is a movie that geeks are going to want to love and mainstream critics are going to love to hate. Personally, I fell somewhere in the middle - appreciating certain aspects of the film - visuals, action, a handful of the performances - but also feeling frustrated by the lack of heart, soul, or any true feeling of epicness, grittiness, gravitas, or danger. Other than Dejah's sexy outfits and one or two moments of videogame-like violence, this is a Disney-fied pulp adventure desperately in need of a Jack Sparrow or Han Solo character to give it a little bit of edge. It could also have used a sense of awe and wonder and intensity. The original John Carter stories helped to inspire everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars and everything in between. But this John Carter is ultimately not at the same level as cinema's best sci-fi/fantasy adventures.

My Grade: B

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