Extended Thoughts on ‘John Carter’

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11John Carter

John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon

Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Mark Strong

Modern discourse has become so difficult because of how defensive each of us is about the side we’re advocating for. I love social media such as Twitter, but such websites can make well-reasoned, expansive arguments challenging. The world of Twitter is, when discussing various pop-culture topics, closer to the gladiatorial arenas of Rome, where people give an automatic thumbs-up or thumbs-down before deciding someone’s ultimate fate. I don’t mean we should discount the immediate reaction, but even those kinds of reactions need further context and explanation.

See, I liked John Carter quite a lot. I’m still not sure whether liking the movie is an unpopular opinion because the other people who’ve seen it dislike it strongly or because some members of the media—heavily aided by Disney’s atrocious marketing campaign, about which more later—set  the film up to fail in the weeks beforehand. John Carter was a movie with an uphill battle from the word go, and some people—chief among them Nikki Finke of Deadline.com—seemed gleeful to destroy the film either without seeing it or before they watched the film unspool. Some others, after seeing the film, point to this as being another example of a studio throwing money at a potential franchise and being punished for cynical thinking.

I am not above schadenfreude, the idea of reveling in other people’s suffering, for certain movies. I will honestly and freely admit to being a hypocrite, one who’s hoping beyond hope to revel in the disaster known as Battleship. If ever there was an example of a studio throwing money at a potential franchise and hoping it would succeed, Battleship is it (and, coincidentally, the film stars the lead of John Carter, Taylor Kitsch). Though that film isn’t from Walt Disney Pictures—and thank God for that—it’s a prime example of cynical, soulless corporate thinking. At least, that’s the assumption I, and many others, make two months before the film’s release. For all we know, Battleship will turn out to be a satisfying and entertaining blockbuster. I doubt it, but it is possible.

It’s not fair, perhaps, to prejudge any movie or book or album or TV show. But we all do it. So I’m not saying prejudging John Carter is a bad thing. I did the same as most people when presented with the various trailers and TV spots that Walt Disney Pictures created for the film. The ads were bland, uninspiring, and did a very bad job of telling anyone why they should see the movie. Who is John Carter? Why does it look like he’s stuck in a same-old, same-old version of every bloated CGI epic of the last decade? As I mentioned on the podcast, the marketing for John Carter actually gets worse once you walk out of the theater, because it shows exactly how the ads didn’t capture the movie’s tone. There’s humor in the film, there’s romance, there’s action, and there’s adventure. Most of the trailers force an epic feel  into the footage. Is this movie something of an epic? Sure, but that’s not its only characteristic.

John Carter aims for the moon. It doesn’t quite get there, but it aims high and comes awful close. I fear that by even writing that sentence, it sounds like I’m giving this movie a pass. I clarified this on the podcast, so I’ll do it again here—if only to soothe myself. I don’t automatically give ambitious movies a pass. Sure, you get an A for effort, but that only goes so far. Ambition does not equal quality. John Carter has both. Its greatest flaw—the overarching one, the one that encapsulates many, though not all, of the issues I have with the film—is that there’s too much going on for one movie.

This is partly related to the film’s length; the movie is over two hours long. If you’ve been listening to the show for a long time, you know that I often criticize a movie’s length. Something’s either too long or too short, but it’s a frequent grip I have. And let’s be clear: any movie can be any length of time and be the best possible movie. What matters is not that John Carter is roughly 135 minutes long. What matters is what co-writer and director Andrew Stanton, and his fellow writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, do with that amount of time. Though most of the time spent on Barsoom—what we know as Mars, the Red Planet—is utilized well, the time surrounding it set on Earth feels like it’s a few minutes too long. These bookends, which fit with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, upon which the movie is based, are important but could be a few minutes shorter without losing their impact.

In some way, that’s the simplest I could explain each of this movie’s problems. Scene A could be longer or shorter and have the same impact as it does in its natural length. Another problem tied to this is the cast. Here, the issue is not that the actors are bad—it’s the opposite: they’re all quite good, some more than others. But almost all of them—Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Ciaran Hinds, and Thomas Haden Church are among the well-known performers—are underserved by the material. Purefoy has a few notable scenes as a soldier on the side of good, and he nearly walks away with the entire film, bursting with charisma and charm in his few minutes on screen. Who knows if Stanton has reams of extra footage and deleted scenes with Purefoy and the others, but I kind of hope so. If not, he cast a lot of well-known actors for a scant time on screen.

Much has been made of Stanton’s direction, his first time with live-action filmmaking after working at Pixar for his entire career. And though he isn’t as adept with the camera as Brad Bird was with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Stanton knows what he’s doing. There’s never a point here where it’s clear that he has anything to learn. His action is a bit more jittery and shaky, but even still, this would lump him in with most directors. Even Christopher Nolan, a director whose work I adore, doesn’t film action sequences as well as you might think. (Again, I love his work. But he likes his action herky-jerky and chopped.) But there’s nothing in John Carter, in terms of its direction, that makes me think Stanton is and always was better suited to working in computer animation.

The biggest flaw, as I said, is in the writing. There’s too much going on in this movie, outside of the main relationship between John Carter, as played by Taylor Kitsch, and Dejah Thoris, played by Lynn Collins. Kitsch and Collins have some solid chemistry—they’re not smoldering off the screen, but they play well with each other. Most important, they know both how ridiculous some of the story can be—the main plot focuses on a mysterious ray of power, which is always inherently silly and pulpy—and how serious to play their characters. Stanton doesn’t go too campy here, but he also doesn’t tip the film into self-seriousness, so often the killer of otherwise enjoyable epic films.

By shoving as many elements into the movie—battles, romances, sidekicks, humor, villainy, old-fashioned heroism—John Carter aspires to be the next Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, and misses the mark. It is a mess, in many ways, and yet it’s one of the most enjoyable and infectiously entertaining films I’ve seen in a while. Outside of the marketing, the 3D, the title change—which, by the way, is a stupid choice and one I wish Stanton hadn’t acquiesced to or pretended made sense—and the bad buzz in general, John Carter is worthwhile viewing. It’s not a bulls-eye, but it comes awfully close. Ambition and quality come awfully close to meeting in the middle here.

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