Rampart
March 3, 2012
DVD Review: Margin Call
March 5, 2012

TAG TEAM REVIEW: John Carter

Josh Miller: Disney currently has a pronounced self-esteem issue as regards their latest tentpole franchise-hopeful, the terribly titled John Carter. If you’re a member of the press, Disney’s PR machine has been going well out of its way to remind you that despite having tall brightly-colored aliens and a general premise that may remind filmgoers of a certain James Cameron blockbuster, John Carter is not an Avatar rip-off. They want you to know John Carter got there first. Which is, well, sort of true. The character of John Carter did indeed get there first. Way first. For those who aren’t aware, the character is the lesser known (lesser known these days) creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the pulp novelist who created the more lastingly famous Tarzan. Back in the early 20th-century though, Carter was just as big as the loin-clothed Lord of Greystoke. In fact, the “John Carter of Mars” series is probably one of the most influential pieces of genre fiction in the past 100 years.

Telling the story of John Carter (here played by Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War veteran from Virginia who, while exploring a cave, gets accidentally and mysteriously whisked away to Mars – or Barsoom, as he soon learns it is called by its native inhabitants – where two separate races and three separate kingdoms are waging a Civil War of their own. On Mars Carter discovers that, like Superman, the difference in gravity between Barsoom and Earth gives him unnatural powers — mostly the ability to jump great distances. Using his newfound abilities, plus his Virginia badassness, Carter becomes something of a savior to the people of Mars, earning the respect of the fearsome and giant Tharks (the green Martians), and the affections of Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the princess of one of the two human-looking races (the red Martians; here their red skin is replaced with ornate red tattoos).

Every human-on-an-alien-world book, movie, comic, and TV show that came after John Carter has Burroughs’ fingerprints on it. Of course, that is bragging rights for Burroughs and John Carter the character. John Carter the movie has the decidedly awkward problem of getting made after all those other books/movies/comics/TV shows that the character inspired (grapevine even has it that E.R. creator Michael Crichton named Noah Wyle’s character, John Cater, after Burroughs’ creation) — a reality that Disney’s marketing team has woefully been unable to utilize or neutralize for the most part. Trailer after trailer, poster after poster, even that awful title change (why not call it John Carter: A Princess of Mars? Girls supposedly like movies with the word “princess” in the title; boys like movies about space. Win-win) have made the film look like the most generic, Avatar-come-lately piece of fluffy nothingness in years. Which is a sorry shame because though writer-director Andrew Stanton’s movie is no masterpiece, I am happy to say that the movie ain’t too shabby either. In fact, I quite enjoyed it.

Tim Kelly: Far from shabby in fact. John Carter is not a perfect film – but that’s only glaring because what it gets right, it gets right so fully and so succinctly.

The pulpiness on display here is infectious and Stanton has a great sense of when to go completely over the top and when to rein it in. I have great affectation for those old pulp novel covers, and I feel this film is beholden to that same fun artfulness that served as your window into these works. I love that initial scene on Mars where Carter’s adjusting to the planet’s gravity. It strikes the right balance of humor and wonder: a tone the film keenly maintains throughout. And that sense of wonder and discovery is precisely the balance the film needs. It’s John Carter‘s best asset and, as Josh touched on, it’s also what’s been lacking in the sell so far.

So much of the film’s appeal is derived from immersing yourself in this fully-realized reality of Barsoom. I was never able to find a way into the original novel, but it’s grand influence on the science fiction genre can’t be denied here, 100 years later. I wouldn’t say that anything in John Carter feels fresh in 2012, but Stanton nails the tone and the surroundings well enough to pull you in.

Feeding into that tone is Lynn Collins. She knows what film she’s in, and thankfully so too does her costume designer. Beautiful, dangerous and mysterious, Dejah to me is the real star and driving force of the work. She’s a total badass and the film’s alive anytime she’s on screen. It proves to be a saving grace too, given that the film’s title character proves also to be its weakest.

Josh: That scene you mention – the hilarious montage of Carter slowly, and painfully, getting the hang of his ability to super-jump on Mars – is where Stanton’s presence and vision for the film are best represented. Edgar Rice Burroughs isn’t exactly remembered for his wacky sense of humor. But we should expect, or at least hope for, nothing less from Stanton’s involvement. If I were heading the marketing for the film I would have released that scene in its entirety as a stand-alone promo. That would certainly dispel any feelings that this was just Avatar on Mars.

Speaking of Stanton… Burroughs fanboys may be irked by some of Stanton’s tweaks to the franchise, but I think he played his hand very well. Stanton and his co-writers, award-winning author Michael Chabon and fellow Pixar alum Mark Andrews, knew that certain things just won’t fly with today’s audience. For example, in Burroughs’ original Carter story, Carter immediately realizes he is on Mars seconds upon arriving, even though he’s just a normal ex-soldier from the 1800’s. Stanton knew that in 2012 even kids might call bullshit on that one. More over, Stanton knows story and what constitutes a “moment.” He knows that not only is having Carter confused by his present situation realistic, but it is also far more interesting to witness the character discover he is on Mars. But Stanton also understands what the John Carter of Mars property is and why it was/is so popular. It may be 2012, but he isn’t out to make another Avatar, or to “update” Burroughs for a post-Dark Knight audience that no longer likes “pulp” in its proverbial orange juice. Most anyone you talk with who loves the Carter novels discovered them as a kid. These are big silly ideas full of adventure and monsters. And while Stanton spins some logic and plausibility into Burroughs’ world, he knows exactly where to cut things off to keep things goofy and fun. And pulpy.

I’ll second you on Lynn Collins. She brings some serious poise to her character. Which makes it all the more disappointing that Disney didn’t have the confidence to go with John Carter: A Princess of Mars, because I think most audiences are going to walk away from the film with her on their brain, more so than Taylor Kitsch. Having never seen Friday Night Lights, I’ve never really got what Kitsch fans are going on about. And I still don’t really. Kitsch isn’t unlikable. He’s handsome and buff and can deliver a line with success. But he doesn’t pop off the screen that way a moviestar really needs to in a film like John Carter. That said, he gives an able performance. You can gather that Kitsch is game for whatever, and likes the character of John Carter, especially his rough side. The film is slow to start, as it needs to cycle through several different set-ups to our admittedly convoluted backstory, and the first scene that made me sit up a little was when Carter is being apprehended by Bryan Cranston’s character (a Colonel in the army trying to recruit Carter), and Carter proceeds to resist arrest in increasingly violent and absurd fashions. Kitsch clearly is most at home in sequences like this, when Carter can be unfriendly. And psychical. John Carter needed Kitsch to bond with Carter the way Jackman did with Wolverine, or Ford did with Indiana Jones, or Reeves did with Neo. Kitsch’s thin, scraggly beard in the film didn’t do him any favors either.

Tim: Kitsch tries to imbue a rogueish charm upon the character, and the film’s tone necessitates that. But I wasn’t always able to connect. He’s far too pretty and not nearly weathered enough to get me to invest in his John Carter. Because to me it’s that new mentality of franchise casting where it’s more important to cast young and goodlooking and hope for the best than it is someone who’s actually right for the role. He’s serviceable, and he does his best, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t fit.

To Kitsch’s defense, the script really does him few favors. That Cranston scene is terrific, and it feels so incredibly Pixar. But when he lands on Mars everything around him is so rich and interesting that the character gets a little shown up. And humorous, character-driven scenes like the above-mentioned ones fall away.

Carter and Dejah’s relationship is such a complete nonstarter that for me is what ultimately holds the picture back. They meet and after a few (amazing) action sequences and setpieces, they’re in deep love. And it couldn’t feel more forced. They fall for each other because the story demands it, but I also think the script pulled the trigger too early. A little more effort and care to this aspect would have served the greater whole. Instead, Carter’s investment in Barsoom falters a little, and by extension so too does the audience’s.

Josh:  It’s never a good sign when you’ve been enjoying a budding romance only to realize that it is apparently no longer “budding.” The relative shortfall of the Carter/Dejah relationship, a relationship which is extremely important for the film’s payoff, I think is symptomatic of an overall problem with the film — not enough attention. It always feels wrong to say that a movie with a 132-minute run-time needed to be longer, but for the story and emotional beats to be as effective as Stanton intended them to be, we probably should have had another twenty minutes, minimum. It is easy to be interested in Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas and the rest of the Tharks. They’re giant aliens with a unique and strange culture that Carter is immersed into at a reasonable pace. But the two “human” races and their complicated relationship with each other doesn’t get the same proportional treatment. Stanton tried to address this problem by moving a scene in which Dominic West’s sub-boss villain, Sab Than, receives a powerful new weapon from Mark Strong’s mysterious character from later in the film to John Carter‘s opening scene (a fact I learned at the Carter press junket). A choice that not only doesn’t do what it is intended to do – introduce the Barsoom Civil War story smoother – but has the lousy side-effect of adding another prologue to a movie that already has a prologue — a scene featuring a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) learning of his uncle John Carter’s bizarre death (a device in keeping with Burroughs’ original writings).

But we just never get enough of the red aliens. West is perfect for Sab Than, playing the part as a petulant tween frustrated that Mark Strong won’t let him play willy-nilly with his dangerous new toy. But Sab Than is something of an afterthought. As is the always great Ciarán Hinds as Dejah’s father, and even more so for James Purefoy, playing Hinds’ right-hand-man (now the second time they’ve had that relationship, after Rome). Purefoy does almost nothing in the film, and the one scene in which he finally does something is so funny that it makes you realize how much better the movie could have been if he’d been in it more — something I never thought I’d say after Solomon Kane. We accept Sab Than, we accept Carter falling for Dejah, and we accept Carter saving Dejah’s people because we’ve already accepted these archetypes in the past. It is a classic story with classic types. Stanton shows us Sab Than and seems to say, “You know this kind of guy. You get his deal. Let’s move on.” And he’s right. But we needed more to properly invest, and for the film to rise to its full potential. I never thought I’d say this either, but Carter could have used a bit of Avatar‘s character focus. Cameron always deals with hacky archetypes, but his talent is in treating them as though he were the first person to do so. Stanton is possibly too self-conscious for this, most comfortable when brilliantly breaking new ground over at Pixar.

Tim: It wouldn’t have been difficult to accomplish this. Than and Carter could have used one more scene to really push that rivalry. They need to hate each other, and while it gets personal it never feels personal. Than needed to be the front and center villain this time out: the nefarious scoundrel who pushes his worldview to excess. Instead he’s just kind of a dick, and a weak pawn in Thang’s game. By the end of the film we know too much about Mark Strong and the Therns. Instead they’re in the foreground when that role should’ve gone to West. There’s something brutish and maniacally unkempt in his performance, it’s just missing that one scene to drive it home. He deserved more.

The same could also be said of Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas. He disappears for a long stretch of the film, and his lack of presence is felt. It plays into the narrative of course, but he’s such a delightful and realized character that it’s bummer.

The scheming Therns are absolutely the main bad here. And where they might have been great villains to introduce over three pictures, instead Stanton throws in the whole kitchen scene. And it’s no more grating than the scene where Thang reveals his entire plan to a captive Carter, Bond Villain style. When Carter asks “why don’t you just kill me?” I had a hard time not wondering the same thing. Ultimately you come to find that the greater themes of the Barsoom conflict offer very little to invest in. It almost feels like the film wants to get everything across too soon, and in that sense it’s the anti-franchise franchise picture. I think the audience could have filled the blanks in with the Therns better than the movie ultimately does.

Josh: Agreed on the fact that the Therns should have been a more shadowy presence to expand upon in the sequels. Though, at the same time, I also generally complain when a film gets too confident in its inevitable sequel — something John Carter definitely is not in a good position to be confident about. But as applies to West’s character, you’re on the money, simply because we have about two to three too many principal characters to care about as it is. Especially for a movie that is going to find its strongest supporters amongst youngsters who will surely respond to Carter’s feats of strength and his relationship with Woola, the giant-headed Martian dog-beast that takes Carter as its master. Simplicity should have been the name of the game.

I’m slowly growing to resent having to talk about 3D over and over again in reviews, but considering that 3D tickets are substantially more money than 2D tickets, it still seems relevant. After briefly being seduced by the brave-new-world possibilities of “serious” 3D photography in cinema, I’ve had to accept that I actually prefer the gimmicky use of the technology seen in Piranha 3D or Step Up 3D far more than even respectable 3D in films like Hugo — and movies like John Carter are why. The 3D isn’t “bad.” I didn’t get a headache like Clash of the Titans. It doesn’t make the film look strange like in Beauty in the Beast 3D. But it added absolutely nothing to the movie visually or emotionally, which – for me at least – winds up inherently detracting from the look and feel of the film, leaving me curious as to whether or not I would have thought the film was better had I seen it in 2D. Stanton and his production design department put a lot of thought into Barsoom, especially the technology of the red Martians. None of which I noticed much of while watching the movie, and I have to wonder if this was a side-effect of my brain processing all the 3D images. In any case, if given the option I’d recommend filmgoers see the film in 2D.

Tim: I’m inclined to agree. Personally, after 120 minutes I’d have forgotten I was watching 3D if not for the muted colors. This modern era of 3D has rarely been about pushing the tech as a viable medium – it’s a gimmick, same as it’s always been. And to your point, films like Pirannha 3D are in a place where they can acknowledge and revel in such transparency. John Carter doesn’t have that luxury, and as such I suspect theatergoers would more appreciate the color and vibrancy of a fully-realized, 2D Mars. With or without 3D, this film’s beautiful: a visual treat that manages to convey a classic aesthetic despite being a movie that’s probably 70% CG. The good news is that what works about John Carter (Dejah, Barsoom, its adventurous spirit) is still great at the reduced price of a 2D ticket.

John Carter is a good film and it’s worth your dollar. It’s so much better than what you’ve been led to believe. Given its Pixar pedigree, it fits in very admirably with the greater Disney pantheon. It’s akin to The Rocketeer: another flawed adventure film that got enough right to be solid entertainment. The Rocketeer never got that second picture, but it deserved it. And so too does John Carter. Stanton proves himself a worthy artist in the live action arena, and I’d love to see him and his collaborators get another go in this vast sandbox.

Time will tell if it ends up being a crowd pleaser, but the potential is there. Go into John Carter with an open mind, one free of any preconceived notions, and you just might walk away with an experience you really enjoy. I certainly did.

Josh: Well said, and The Rocketeer comparison is apt. Even if John Carter tanks at the box office, I would bet good money that the generation of young lads hitting the multiplexes now will similarly bestow a genre classic badge on the film years from now the same way our generation did with The Rocketeer. We seem to agree that this deserves to become a franchise. The pieces are all in place, and though John Carter sadly stumbles more than I would have liked from Andrew Stanton, when he gets it right the film bounds and soars like Carter himself. I can imagine Stanton knocking the sequel out of the park. This was his first live-action film and even though Pixar is the controlling force at Disney creatively, I still have to imagine many roadblocks where put in Stanton’s way (probably most put in by Stanton himself). I would love to see him tackle another John Carter story, having learned from his mistakes and with the creative confidence to go full-bananas.

We both give it:
[rating: 3.5]