Reviews: John Carter

A good movie that failed through no fault of its own.

John Carter is a good film. It's beautifully-shot, imaginative in its visuals, takes the best ideas from its source material without being slavishly devoted to it. It features the best CGI acting of its time, with the Tharks in particular blowing the Na'vi so far out of the water they'd land on those dumb floating continents.

The storytelling is grand, epic in scope but human in perspective. It actually justifies why the human-and-therefore-already-at-a-handicap main character gets to be the protagonist in a way so many films of its type never bother to. It has a cast broad enough to be diverse without being an intolerable thicket. Every actor turns in exactly what the role demands at worst. And it even has an adorably-ugly alien dog with super-speed.

It is a pretty good movie. I still like to watch it whenever I catch it on TV. The worst thing I'll say about it is that it made me hungry for a sequel that'll never come.

So then, the question becomes, why did it bomb? Why did I, who love the film, not see it in theaters? Why was the best Disney live-action IP since the Pirates films dead on arrival?

A bit of Internet sleuthing fingers a truly awful marketing campaign as one of the biggest culprits. Whether it was Stanton's failure to construct a quality campaign or others' failure to properly use his material is buried in the mists of Hollywood backstabbing and scapegoating.

Another is the budget, which apparently ballooned tremendously partway through the project as Stanton, a talented rookie, had to do a bunch of reshoots and redos. Collectively, such an increase ensured that the film was all-but doomed not to make a profit, simply because the bar was so very high.

And, of course, the critics. Bleh. Often, I find I don't really agree with their hive-minded consensus, but the drubbing this movie got was unwarrented. So what if this movie has some of the same vague plot underpinnings as, say, Avatar? It told a better story with better characters and better narrative skill! Most of the complaints quickly seem to reveal to me that they were angry it wasn't something it was never trying to be. That, combined with a public that pretends things like Metacritic or the Tomatometer are actual indicators of quality or can even be used to objectively measure the fundamentally subjective, were a collective albatross around the film's neck.

With neither the colossal marketing juggarnaut that props up critically-panned stuff like the Transformers films, nor the kind of critical super-support that helped The Jungle Book grow beyond its opening weekend, John Carter died.

That's sad. But, at the end of the day, at least we got a good movie out of it, and if you've never had the chance to, give it a watch. It's a great sci-fi yarn, and it was the best Star Wars we'd gotten for years before The Force Awakens came out.

Should never have left the drawing board

I don’t know much about the original Princess of Mars, besides its status as a grandfather of nearly all modern sci-fi (or at least soft “mythical” sci-fi). I’m sure it can adapted into a good film, but John Carter is not that adaptation, and I absolutely hated the final product.

Firstly, there is John Carter himself, who has to be one of the least sympathetic protagonists in cinematic history. He enters the story as a drunken, violent, unhelpful dullard, and doesn’t change much throughout the film. He is unwilling to take part in the war and other events around him because he wants to get home, but the film never establishes anything worthwhile he has to come back to, and so there is no attachment to his quest. Director even thoroughly ruins a major fight scene where he single-handedly dispatches 50-100 Tharks (or whatever their name is) by intercutting it with flashback of him burying his wife and daughter. This has zero impact because they’re hardly even mentioned before, much less shown on-screen or get any lines in flashbacks that would foster attachment. To be fair, there wasn’t really much to ruin. Even with good cinematography, it would've still been a battle with thugs we never heard of before that come practically out of nowhere, thus lacking dramatic impact. The major fight scenes against known antagonists are just as dull and unengaging, lacking even basic choreography: nobody even bothers to block when fighting in melee. In the absence of good action and interesting protagonist, the film has to support itself through secondary characters and overarching plot, and it fails there as well.

The Princess of Mars herself is mainly reduced to delivering exposition and lacks screen presence, their romance lacking all chemistry. Thark allies are two-dimensional: primary villain does get greater depth, but only through tortured attempts at moral ambiguity that ultimately come to naught because of Therns. Their villainy is the worst of both worlds: they have thoughtful, non-menacing manner befitting stories with White and Grey Morality, yet their goals are no deeper than “destroy the world… slowly”. The final nail in film’s coffin are the over-long, tremendously annoying scenes with alien babies and the unapologetic Mighty Whitey overtones that make Avatar seem like Mississippi Burning.