I was trying to recall what the poster reminded me of…
JOHN CARTER in 3D and Imax — I never actually saw an Imax feature before. When our local hydraplex first got an Imax screen, all they had to show was a couple documentaries. I saw the one about Everest. When the snowslide hit the camera lens, as rendered on a screen the size of Burt Lancaster’s grin, I jumped — something 3D pretty much never makes me do (except in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE)… I didn’t experience such an extreme reaction this time, maybe because we sat further back, in deference to Fiona’s nerves. Excessive scale can be alarming to her — for instance, she has a morbid fear of the Eiffel Tower.
…and then I remembered this Tim White paperback cover, BUT…
So, JOHN CARTER, a movie which is underperforming ENTIRELY, I submit, because some halfwit at Disney decided to omit the words “OF MARS” from their $250 million epic, thereby making it sound like MICHAEL CLAYTON or JACKIE BROWN. Low-key, in other words. The decision reeks of stupidity not just because it miss-sells the product (I guess the ads made most of us aware what kind of film this really was) but because it gave off a whiff of panic, and the press bloodhounds were all over that. So the movie emerged sheened in flop sweat, before a skeptical rather than an enthused populace.
But I think they should have thrown subtlety to the winds, like Frazetta.
What’s the movie like? Imperfect, but fun. It had me almost convinced that the improbably-named Taylor Kitsch is a leading man, and slightly more convinced by Lynn Collins. Then, a long way in, James Purefoy comes in with a better-drawn character and breathes so much life into his moments of screen time that you realize what’s been missing. There are some very good actors in this — Mark Strong seizes his moments too, and Ciaran Hinds does his angst-ridden gravitas thing that earns him the big bucks. Dominic West is almost positioned as the main bad guy, but his character is so outclassed by Strong’s that he can’t register. Also, he doesn’t get to do anything really nasty. I mean, he kills lots of people, but so does everybody in this film. You can’t judge the characters by the same standards you’d apply to the people at your local Tesco. I mean, that’d be ridiculous. What West, a thoughtful actor, does, is play his character for all he’s worth as a man promoted hopelessly beyond his range of competence. That’s all the script has given him, so he just goes for it. I think it’s the only choice of any integrity available to him, but it doesn’t help the film the way some good bad-guy business would.
“My name isn’t a problem as I shall appear only in the most classy. high-toned works.”
I’ve read a lot of reviews saying the movie is badly designed, which I don’t wholly agree with. The earthly stuff looks great. Everything involving the four-armed tharks looks beautiful: the tharks, the thark city (Tharksville?), the thark animals like the bullfrogdog, Woola, even the thark bunting in the thark arena is quite lovely.
Meanwhile, in Zodanga and Helium (I know! But still better than Taylor Kitsch, right?) people wear ridiculous tufts of fake fur on their shoulders, elaborate fretwork lattices, and the kind of fantasy fiction garb that tends to look better in a Frank Frazetta painting than on a moving human being with the ability to convey embarrassment. Busy, busy, busy, as Bette Davis says in WHALES OF AUGUST. *I* say, if you’re going the Frazetta route, you probably want to show more skin just to distract from what they’re actually almost wearing. But it’s a Disney film. Is that why it doesn’t have a Traci Lords cameo, which it so clearly REQUIRES? Is there some crazy Disney ruling against employing former porn stars? But Traci is a born-again B-movie queen, and this movie could use her services.
The impractically incomplete, but fetishistically pleasing suits of armour reminded me of Just Jaeckin’s GWENDOLINE, but they just needed to go that extra mile, or few inches.
Action: mostly clear and impressive, sometimes too frenetic and ugly.
Dialogue: some funny lines, some “How does a pharaoh talk?” awkwardness.
Emotion: Andrew Stanton’s films thrive on sentiment, and here the main source is Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton’s relationship, which is a distant second in importance and screen time to the leads’. I still enjoyed it though — just wanted more.
Structure: the framing device REALLY pays off — a clever bit of writing, and I don’t automatically expect smarts in films of this kind. Some damage has been done, however, by an inane decision to open on Mars, rather than forcing the audience to wait and be rewarded. In early interviews Stanton seems to hint that he’s going to unfold his plot in a patient and carefully planned manner. Some Disney exec has forced him to splurge. The good news is, if it’s the same guy who changed the title, they only need to fire one person. It’s not Stanton.
Originality: is this movie massively preempted by all the films and shows influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books over the years? Well, I never felt I was watching something rendered redundant by STAR WARS. I *did* feel that the spirit of FLASH GORDON was very much in the air, and the race to interrupt a wedding at the end, while familiar from many shows from THE PRINCESS BRIDE to THE GRADUATE, seemed particularly reminiscent of Mike Hodges’ camp FXtravaganza. That comparison shows two things — that JOHN CARTER could and should have pushed things further, made itself more outrageous and distinctive — and that Taylor Kitsch, even if he doesn’t quite dominate the film as he should, still has the edge on poor old Sam J. Jones.