Review: John Carter (2012)
Here and there throughout the unimaginably (and unimaginatively) expensive John Carter are elements that, in some configuration or other, could conceivably be assembled into a good movie. There is a magnetic leading man in Taylor Kitsch. There is some attempt to discuss race, class, and religion. There is a love story and a bit with a dog. But there is also bloat, incoherent lethargy, and a truly appalling post-production conversion to 3D. Thus, John Carter is something of a disaster.
…there is also bloat, incoherent lethargy, and a truly appalling post-production conversion to 3D. Thus, John Carter is something of a disaster.
The movie begins by shouting non sequiturs at the audience for several scenes, before Civil War veteran John Carter is transported from his native Earth to Barsoom, as the locals call Mars. There he finds himself possessed of the ability to jump very high and absorb immense amounts of physical punishment. This leads to John Carter (or Virginia, as the language barrier leads to his being called for some time) becoming a major curiosity to the inhabitants of Barsoom, who seem to consist mainly of the four-armed, tribal Thark, and an assortment of red-painted humanoids with inconsistent British accents. One of these (the rather lovely and quite talented Lynn Collins) is warrior-scientist princess Dejah Thoris, betrothed to loathsome, ruthless, power-hungry lummox Sab Than (Dominic West), though it’s Carter with whom Dejah develops romantic interest. Overseeing and manipulating things is a stubbornly inscrutable (though clearly villainous) shape-shifter whose default appearance is as a bald and blue-robed Mark Strong. Once the movie makes up its mind what it’s going to be about, it becomes a struggle between the abruptly heroic Carter aligning with the Thark and the princess and James Purefoy against Mark Strong and Dominic West. The story ends on a note of extreme confidence in an incipient sequel.
All this is fine and good and a perfectly serviceable pulp science-fiction story; there is a good deal of recognizable Edgar Rice Burroughs in John Carter, and not just in the metafictional subplot where a young Edgar plays Carter’s nephew. On paper, there are are more than sufficient amounts of solid pulp gold. In execution, writers Andrew Stanton (who also directed), Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon (yes, that Michael Chabon, the one who’s one of the greatest living American novelists) end up with a frantic, over-caffeinated mess, wherein four or five complete movies worth of plot collide and end up hacking each other up with swords.
The production has a similarly fractured, dissonant feel: it almost feels as though the movie had three separate directors as well as three writers. There’s one director who favors big wide shots with witty use of CG animation—Carter’s pet “dog” Woola is, admittedly, endearing—who bears some signs of being the same Andrew Stanton who directed WALL-E. This one uses 3D fairly well, if mundanely. Then there’s another one who keeps jamming the camera in the actors’ faces and forgetting to light the set and who keeps forgetting that in order for post-converted 3D to work, scenes need to be shot in deep focus. And finally, there’s the blind amphetamine addict who directed the action scenes, which are visual gibberish. Transformers 3 is a Fred Astaire movie in comparison. It may, to be fair, be the fault of the post-converted 3D, which in this case not only failed to add anything of merit, it actually made the action scenes impossible to see. At this point in the extended water torture experiment that is Hollywood’s usurious obsession with 3D, it’s become clear that the format, when it works at all, works in long takes, establishing shots, and in any kind of shot containing some sort of contrast in size. It does not work for action. While John Carter is an object lesson in how egregiously bad action can look when quick cutting is combined with badly-done 3D, it holds true across the board.
Sadly, the movie is an irritating, mercurial mess, and it is a bit alarming that a major studio is actually releasing something that’s in this shape.
Even discounting the 3D problem, John Carter is a frustrating and scattered movie. It only barely makes sense after sifting through the visual chaff for the narrative wheat. Its director seems to have had a massive problem keeping all the moving parts under control; it’s quite possible that given the same degree of control Stanton had over his animated films, John Carter could have been the rousing science-fiction/fantasy tale its literary and aesthetic elements promise. Instead, it feels unfinished, which is an astounding impression for a $250 million motion picture to leave. Even the title, John Carter, is bland and incomplete. The closing titles include the suffix “of Mars,” whose exclusion is one of the great mysteries of our time. The likelihood of the production history being studied, in an attempt to figure out what the people who made this were thinking, more than the movie itself is as high as John Carter can jump. Sadly, the movie is an irritating, mercurial mess, and it is a bit alarming that a major studio is actually releasing something that’s in this shape.