John Carter

Whatever's Clever
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2012
Director: 
Andrew Stanton
Starring: 
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton
The Setup: 
Civil war guy goes to Mars, has adventures.
Discussion: 

Alrighty then. So there's a lot of backstory. I had become super-dismissive of this movie because it's from Disney, it looked like a bunch of same-'ol CGI bullshit, it's obviously an attempt to start a franchise, it has a stupid, bland title, and I couldn't tell what it was about from the trailers--except a bunch of chosen man, superhero, interplanetary warring-factions with lots of CGI creatures bullshit.

Then it came out and is already far in the lead for flop of the year. It cost $350 million to make and market, and Disney had to take a $200 million write-down. This is the brainchild of Andrew Stanton, Pixar dude who directed Finding Nemo and co-wrote all the Toy Story films. He is adapting century-old Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) adventures, which have already been picked clean for inspiration for everything from Star Wars to Avatar. There was a portrait of Staton in the New Yorker that painted him as perhaps a trifle arrogant regarding his own unimpeachable authority as an expert on storytelling, as well as a total cock of a person. It is said that Disney allowed him all kinds of leeway in terms of dictating the marketing of the film, resulting in those ads and trailers that make it impossible to tell what the story was about... except CGI bullshit.

Then I, being a bit of a dick, leapt on the condemnation bandwagon, film-unseen, and published a little collection, How Bad IS John Carter? that collected the most creative prose from the IMDb regarding the tortures this movie caused them. But then comments asked me what I thought, and I felt a little bad for being mean without having actually seen the film. Well, now I've seen it! And all the issues I iterated in paragraph one all stand, except that, despite all that, it is kind of loony fun.

The movie is front-loaded with problems. We open on Mars, with a battle and a butt-ton of exposition, with two warring factions dressed identically except for red or blue capes, and flying the exact same spaceships, so it's impossible to tell them apart. Then we go to Earth, with a young fellow learning that Carter is dead, and he has inherited everything, including a diary. He reads the diary, and then we flash back to Carter himself, during the Civil War. So that's THREE massive film environments, each with their own set of characters, in about ten minutes. We meet Carter in ye olde stranger-walks-into-a-saloon, has fistfight scene, then Carter is captured by his war regiment, and we have numerous scenes that show us: He's A Fighter! Then he escapes, and there's a chase, then they run into Indians, and there's a chase, and he escapes into a cave, where some dude materializes, and there's a fight, but the guy had a magic medallion that transports Carter to Mars.

So that's a TON to take in, and if we could all go back, I think THAT'S the big mistake the movie makes, because most viewers will have shut down and given up trying to understand what's happening by fifteen minutes in. Which, in retrospect, proves to be the only way to enjoy the movie; just accept, and let it wash over you. So it turns out that because of Mars' lower gravity, Carter can leap great distances--and never be injured on high-speed impact--and also has super-strength, except in cases where it is convenient to the screenplay that he doesn't. He meets the Tharks, who have four arms, and is taken prisoner. It is quickly established that Carter can kill them with one punch, a scene that should have simply been excised, as it causes numerous narrative problems during the many scenes where Carter is being held prisoner and bossed around and roughed up by them, and you will indeed by sitting there saying "Ummm, I thought he could kill them with one punch?" Having read the New Yorker article, in which we see Stanton micro-fussing over the most insignificant story detail, one wonders how this massive boondoggle got trough. We later see Carter effortlessly slay an entire army (by the way, LOTS and LOTS of killing), but he let's the Tharks shove him around for a good while. Inexplicable.

Anyway, there's some thing where there's this princess, and she's supposed to marry this bad guy, who is in collusion with these sort-of gods, to bring together the good and bad blue or red-wearing people, but she ends up with the Tharks, and Carter, and they need to... do something? And there's this whole other alien race that I have clean forgotten. I saw the movie yesterday and have completely forgotten one of the alien races. I also can't really remember everything that "happens" for the whole middle of the movie, or what the point of it was.

Eventually we arrive that the first of our seventeen endings. Carter is in some arena having to defeat these snowbeast-things, another scene in which his super-strength abruptly fails him--until it doesn't--while the princess' wedding is happening, and he convinces the Tharks to join his war against the alien race who I've forgotten, but they've been mistakenly led to the wrong place, and then Carter goes to the wedding, which has been going on for like seven hours by now, and then there's a big battle between the identically-dressed people, and then the Tharks come, and the villain is killed, leaving the god-dude who has been behind all this, and then Carter marries the princess, and then gets abruptly sent back to Earth, and then has a mini-adventure with his cousin or whoever, and he kills the God-dude, and is able to rejoin his lady love on Mars. The end.

So let's get this straight, this is a bad movie. This is in no way a good movie. But... it's fun. Once you give up on trying to sort it all out and figure out who wants what and why, you just look at the pretty pictures and accept that they have to go here and do this and then go there and do that, and you'll never really know why, then you can just relax and enjoy the pretty pictures. And they are quite pretty. The movie itself cost $250 million--and even though it's become passé to say, that's still obscene--but it looks like it. It looks amazing, and every few seconds, there's something to ooh at. There are whole scenes of entirely CGI tribes that look convincing. The spaceships, which fly on glass feathers, look amazing. This huge structure made of fibrous strands that start to glow on different levels, looks amazing. You know how you watch Lawrence of Arabia and you say "Oh my God, I can't believe they dressed out this entire desert as a set with all those hundreds of extras and tents stretching off for miles in the distance?" Well here, you watch it and you say "Oh my God, I can't believe they spent that much money!" And you also know that all those effects come with the tremendous amount of effort on the parts of a large amount of people, and a part of you has to kind of ask... "On THIS?"

What else? Taylor Kitsch is actually pretty charming. Lynn Collins as the princess looks ready to be cast as Wonder Woman. And that's about it. If this were a bit MORE wacky it could have ended up being a one-of-a-kind amazing misfire along the lines of Dune. If it were more outrageously silly it could have been a one-of-a-kind misfire along the lines of Flash Gordon. And while I think it will gain a future audience who will wonder at it more than really get into it, it is vaguely amusing for what it is.

And I have to reject the notion that the reason this isn't playing well is that all its ideas have been plundered by the sci-fi that came out in the meantime. This is lame because it is very much of the moment--and the cliche--in terms of characterization, action pacing, scene structure and overall structure, and "roller coaster ride" filmmaking. Apparently the John Carter of the novels was a valiant do-gooder. As one of the commenters I pulled for my compilation says, don't filmmakers realize that "the dark, brooding antihero is now the cliche?"

Should you watch it: 

If you want, the visuals and 3D are good.