Movie Review – John Carter (2012)
When a movie flops this badly and ends up as the official biggest box office disaster of all time there is no doubt that a certain negative stigma will forever be associated with it. In short, this pungent odour will stick with this movie for time immemorial and it will fairly or not take its place amongst Hollywood’s pantheon of cinematic disasters like Ishtar, Waterworld, Heaven’s Gate, The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Cleopatra. Yet what exactly is a box office bomb? Simply stated it’s a case where the movie’s combined budget and marketing costs far outstrip its box office receipts so much so that the difference is a massive loss that can sink studios a dubious feat Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate almost accomplished.
However, there are a hundred reasons why movies do not make their money back and quality is just one facet of the equation. It is much more interesting to note that numerous lists of the worst movies of all time don’t necessarily have the biggest box office flops on them thus we get other titles like Battlefield Earth, Showgirls, Howard the Duck, Myra Breckenridge or the immortal Plan 9 From Outer Space. With this in mind is Disney’s John Carter only a box office disaster or does it also manage to enter the worst movie of all time hall of fame?
Taylor Kitsch is Civil War veteran John Carter who now spends his days out West trying to find fortune through the lure of gold. Carter is a broken man whose exemplary past service in the Confederate army is now ancient history, replaced by sarcasm and a next to total lack of desire to fight for any cause prompted by the violent death of his wife and son while he was away. However, the local American army commander, Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston), wants to enlist his help in fighting the Apache Indians a decision which does not sit well with Carter who eventually escapes capture and finds himself in an abandoned gold mine.
Seeming to have struck it rich he instead comes face to face with a mysterious humanoid dressed in exotic clothing that attacks on sight. After a brief scuffle Carter kills his attacker who drops a mysterious amulet which he promptly picks up and in a flash, is magically transported to Mars where he soon becomes involved in a planetary Civil War along with a merry band of local Tharks (think Green-skinned aliens) that more or less serve the same role as the Sioux Indians or Navi from Dances With Wolves and Avatar.
It is revealed that Mars or as its inhabitants call it, Barsoom, has been in the throes of conflict for thousands of years leaving the planet perilously close to destruction as its resources have been stripped and mined to aid the war effort. After a long period of time the conflict has been distilled down into two major city factions, the noble Helium and the immoral Zodanga of which the latter is clearly winning as its leader Sab Than (Dominic West) has managed to obtain a weapon of unbelievable power from the mysterious Thern race that the virtuous Helium forces cannot counter.
With defeat inevitable the Helium leader has no choice but to accept a peace offering that would join both cities under the rule of Sab Than through a marriage with his own daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), to consummate the treaty. Obviously, our plucky heroine escapes and finally manages to bump into John Carter and from that point on most will guess that romance and adventure will ensue as Carter seeks to overcome his inner demons and unite the planet to stop the villainous Sab Than.
For all the talk of failure John Carter is an ambitious movie with a size and scope that often times rivals James Cameron’s Avatar and harkens back to epic David Lean inspired films of yesteryear such as Lawrence of Arabia. The production design is simply exquisite with the team coming up with wondrous ways in which to essentially create distinctive massive sets, landscapes and vehicles from what amounts to be nothing but a barren desert backdrop. However, for all its technical merits John Carter is only half of a good film as the wonder and awe that is lovingly created in a slow burn opening simply self-combusts the further along it goes.
The scene where Carter arrives on Mars is perhaps the best example of the film’s potential with an admirable mix of innocence and playfulness when he attempts to walk amidst his new surroundings, yet instead soars through the air due to the lower gravity and his different bone density. Surprised at this result he lands with the grace of a flying hippopotamus kicking up dust and looking like he has no control over his limbs. At the same time the introduction of the native culture through a multi-pedal race called the Tharks and a snippet glimpse into the rather Darwinian way of thought where weak newborn babies are shot in cold blood, seems like the start of something good as audiences will surely expect to learn more of this exotic location and its inhabitants.
Alas, although director Andrew Stanton has executed well up to this point he makes the wrongheaded decision to switch gears and concentrate on procedural action instead of delivering deeper insight into this world’s culture and political structure completely dropping the subject leaving audiences in a lurch. This is quite frankly a baffling choice that emasculates the entire narrative drive.
Take a similar movie such as Dances With Wolves about a soldier who survives the Civil War and decides to venture to the frontier before it disappears. There he meets the local Sioux Indians starting a long chain of events that eventually leads him to follow their way of life. However, this only makes sense because director Kevin Costner correctly understands that to validate this life-changing event that he needs to devote sufficient screentime to show the vast intricacies of the Sioux culture. Obviously, a three hour movie is not nearly enough time to touch on every aspect of the Sioux culutre yet Costner deliberately slows the pace down and details everything he possibly can from the way the clan’s hierarchy is constructed, the role of honor, the division of labour etc. Thus as Costner’s character learns about the Sioux by extension so does the audience who now have a much greater appreciation of a culture and way of life that has since been lost to the sands of time.
Contrast this with John Carter the movie and the difference is startling because except for a few lines of exposition, director Andrew Stanton totally ignores the need to inform audiences past the very superficial plot elements that set up the reasoning for the war on Mars that cast the honorable city of Helium against the military brute force of Zodanga. We are never given any indication as to what makes either society tick, how it is organized and why we should even care to support one over the other besides the fact that Zodanga is visually represented by monstrous inhuman machines, bathed in brown and dark tones whereas Helium looks a lot like the inspiring graceful towers of Star War’s Alderaan. Without more information about these two empires as well as the native-like Thark the audience essentially has no horse to bet on and cheer for beyond the forced attempts at concocting a good versus evil dynamic.
At the same time Stanton’s script is woefully lacking in coherency and occasionally contradicts itself none more so than the real antagonist Thern race of God-like creatures that appear to be puppet-masters as they manipulate the empires to war. However, Stanton barely gives more than a few throwaway lines in explaining what their motivation is in forcing a war and why exactly they have chosen Zodanga to prevail over Helium.
There is one moment where it seems that Stanton has finally got it right as a Thern explains to Carter that his race sees the universe in a kind of cyclical nature where species rise and then summarily kill themselves and the planets they inhabit. On the face of it all this sounds plausible but then the Thern continues to speak suggesting to Carter that all that his entire race does is watch and not interfere because they understand the cycle cannot be broken. Nevertheless, just as the explanation begins to sink in the Thern has the audacity to keep going and say that they interfere anyways completely contradicting his previous statements. Even if the Thern never uttered this line audiences who are paying attention will quickly realize the fallacy here in the speech as the Therns routinely inject themselves into the action and manipulate everyone whenever then can. It all amounts to a narrative that is utterly muddled and in need of a serious rewrite.
I might be in the minority opinion but John Carter is a movie that begs for a longer running time especially in an altogether truncated third act that moves much too quickly towards a rather lackluster ending. It is almost as if director Andrew Stanton began editing the film and then came to the erroneous conclusion that the pace was too slow thus ventured to rip apart the final 30-45 minutes into smaller chunks including much of the exposition that revolved around the mysterious antagonists and how they actually functioned. Many might find the opening acts to be ponderous yet I beg to differ as Stanton actually takes the time setting up Carter’s back-story and how he manages to teleport from Earth to Mars.
Perhaps this truncated narrative should be blamed on Disney executives who balked at the already long running time and forced Stanton to take a hatchet to his work because they worried that a four hour epic would by wholly alienating to audiences and reduce daily showings. Seemingly no one remembered that both Dances With Wolves or Avatar clocked in at over three hours apiece. Nevertheless, whatever the reason for this move the ultimate result is that the film completely breaks down the further along it gets because it becomes more incomprehensible as Carter finds himself in new locations and new predicaments far too easily causing audiences to throw their hands up in frustration not knowing what exactly is happening and why.
It is not often that I really sit down and ruminate on how Hollywood executives think but I have a strong feeling that those at Disney who green lit the movie were conflicted from the get go in truly understanding what the film was about. The issue here for modern audiences who really do not know the source material is that they are completely aware of the films which have been influenced by Burrough’s source material thus nearly everyone knows Dances With Wolves or Avatar as films where the protagonist basically joins the natives and rallies them to a cause. In that case watching a virtually similar plot unfold in John Carter the movie makes it feel like a trite copy of those more famous movies and I’m sure many in the audience will mistakenly groan that there is little originality here. Throw in the fact that all these films have a love story angle in common and Disney should have realized that audiences would probably react negatively here unless the film managed to craft an original take or angle to separate John Carter from the pack.
At the same time, John Carter has truly been a disaster in a marketing sense as there was very little traction and viewer awareness of the film leading up to its premiere and much of the blame can easily be placed at the feet of the marketing department and apparently director Andrew Stanton himself who made many of the key decisions in advertising the film. Unfortunately, the generic trailers were ineffective in showcasing what the movie was about. Instead, we got tons of trailers trying to draw attention to the action at the expense of the plot leaving audiences again confused as to what exactly was going on past the good effects.
It also doesn’t help that the name John Carter is virtually meaningless for modern audiences who have no clue who Burroughs was and why his work was important. It would have been a much better decision to keep the original name of the book which was, “A Princess of Mars,” but I have a strong feeling executives scuttled that because they erroneous thought that any Disney movie with the word “princess” in it would make the film feel as if it were the sequel to Tangled instead of a sci-fi epic.
Still, the film’s failure is now history and it will be up to critics and historians to dissect exactly why it flopped yet whatever the prognosis John Carter the movie is not really a total disaster but it certainly is a project that could have used a few tweaks and tucks here and there. The leisurely pace in the first half of the film makes one feel as if the original intent was to truly create an epic adventure film in the vein of David Lean, with not only picturesque scenery and a rousing score but a bevy of complex characters to go along with a well-thought out emotional narrative and that is exactly what we get for the most part with an extended Earth sequence that sets the stage to introduce John Carter as your prototypical hero with a sorrowful past. Yet once Stanton decides to ramp up the pace the David Lean feel is quickly vaporized and replaced with incoherent and slovenly edited action sequences that feel heavy handed and lack any tension whatsoever. For such an extended buildup the actual final action sequence is laughably executed and over in mere minutes never even coming close to an emotional crescendo.
If there is one area where John Carter supremely soars is in its wholly melodious score by Michael Giacchino which really harkens back to classic adventure movies like Lawrence of Arabia doing much to provide the film with an expansive feeling of adventure and passion. Giacchino doesn’t seem to hold back here as the full power of the orchestral score is sweeping in scope and ambition reflecting perfectly the intent of the film itself. Personally, this is Giacchino at his best when attempting to pen a score that strikes directly at the powerful emotional heart of the narrative by giving key characters individual themes and embellishments rather than merely just keeping up with the action.
I have always adhered to the school of thought that a movie’s soundtrack should always strive to provide recognizable melodies to help audiences relate to either characters or events. For instance, whenever John Williams’ famous Imperial March plays one immediately is reminded of the powerfully evil presence of Darth Vader and the dark side of the Force. In this sense, Giacchino’s score is flawless as it hits every emotional beat with aplomb and I would go far as to say that those who love film soundtracks should run out and get it as soon as possible regardless if one likes the film or not.
Performances are decidedly bland throughout with Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins doing their best to model their roles after Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton from another Disney property, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Seriously, I have no idea what is happening in the house of mouse but crafting two science fiction/fantasy blockbusters in a row which feature similarly long-haired stalwart heroes and two interchangeable scantily clad heroines both with lush English accents seems incredibly clumsy and again perhaps this led to many potential viewers being alienated that John Carter felt inherently stale from the get go. It is almost as if Disney took the playbook from Prince of Persia and grafted the John Carter narrative around parts of it in order to save time and costs.
For all its faults John Carter is not totally devoid of merit but Disney certainly didn’t do it any favors mismanaging its release in spectacular fashion. Originally meant to premiere in the Winter movie season where slightly more ambitious/serious films are released such as Avatar or the many Lord of The Rings films, it instead was moved to March, home of fare that is far lighter in mood and tone. Although there are a few laughs to be had in John Carter the overall film is decidedly more serious and theatrical in nature and those who expect either non-stop action or comedy are going to run straight into the reality of the movie’s measured tempo. I am heartened that director Andrew Stanton displayed a high degree of passion for the project and aimed for a grand slam yet the resultant movie is merely a base hit that has far too many issues for me to recommend for anyone else but the most ardent science fiction fan or those who love Burrough’s series of books who might be interested merely in the visuals as it brings to life their fantasy world with much composure.
**1/2 out of ****
2012, USA, Disney
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon
Based on the story “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Produced by Lindsey Collins, Jim Morris, Colin Wilson
Associate Producer Bob Roath
Original Music by Michael Giacchino
Cinematography by Daniel Mindel
Film Editing by Eric Zumbrunnen
Taylor Kitsch: John Carter
Lynn Collins: Dejah Thoris
Samantha Morton: Sola
Willem Dafoe: Tars Tarkas
Thomas Haden Church: Tal Hajus
Mark Strong: Matai Shang
Ciarán Hinds: Tardos Mors
Dominic West: Sab Than
James Purefoy: Kantos Kan
Bryan Cranston: Powell
© 2012 The Galactic Pillow