Sunday, July 15, 2012
Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Bryan Cranston, Daryl Sabara
Running Time: 132 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
I really don't care how much money a movie makes or what it costs to make it, though it seems many in the media do, holding it up as a testament to its creative worth. Of course, it's nice for the people involved and the studio releasing it when their project cleans up at the box office, but just because an expensively made movie is a financial flop doesn't make it an artistic failure. Any more than it's necessarily a success if it rakes in the dough. In this era of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, Twilights, Transformers and Marvel movies, just about the only argument that can be made in favor of a relationship between quality and cost is an inverse one. Yet somehow, Disney's John Carter, a fun, spectacularly silly throwback adventure that has its heart in the right place has become this symbol of Hollywood greed and corporate avarice because it didn't recoup its high price tag. Really guys? You're gonna attack THIS?
Far from the Waterworld-sized debacle it's been touted as, JC is actually an intelligently told fantasy fable featuring a likable protagonist, an incredibly strong female lead and great visual scope. It's also a bit of a mess, albeit a fascinating one. The plot's too convoluted with about three or four different timelines and villains, and a more streamlined screenplay would have resolved some lingering issues, but that's the extent of it. Its worst crime just may have been being based on Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs' 100 year-old series of stories that inspired the likes Star Wars, Superman, Flash Gordan and Avatar, but arriving onscreen last, unintentionally making it look and feel derivative when it's just late. With just a little tweaking, this really could have been a huge deal. And with his first foray into live action, longtime Pixar director Andrew Stanton certainly does a smoother job fleshing out a world and navigating intraplanetary politics than Lucas did with his prequels, as faint as that praise may seem. But it isn't faint, as more sci-fi adventures could stand to be as fun as this.
After a brief, poorly placed prologue on Barsoom (A.K.A. Mars) that plays as a strange cross between Return of the Jedi and 300, we're informed of the death of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) of Virginia, a Confederate Civil war Captain who left nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) a diary explaining the circumstances that eventually lead to his death. It flashes back years earlier to the Arizona territory where Union Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston in a blonde wig and colonial garb!) arrests him, but he escapes, leading them both to a cave where Carter is confronted by a Martian Thern named Matai Shang (Mark Strong) and transported--via a mysterious medallion--to Barsoom, where he's discovered by a Green Martian Tharks and their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). With his new ability to jump incredible heights and perform superhuman feats, Carter's unwillingly thrust into the middle of a bitter feud between rival cities Helium and Zodanga, with the evil Sab Than (Dominic West) plotting to end their war by marrying the headstrong Princess of Helium, scientist Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Rescued by Carter, she promises to get him home and with the help of Tarkas' daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton) and a lizard dog named Woola as they embark on a treacherous journey across the Red Planet.
While the plot's way too complicated and at times unfocused, but for a film of this scale it's surprisingly deep, with the meat and bones of the story working really well and clear care put toward character development. Despite seeming to take a library's worth of Burrough's stories (supposedly it's mostly adapted from just one, The Princess of Mars) and attempting to jam it into a single overplotted feature, it's a shock this isn't harder to follow. I'm usually no fan of extensive CGI and think it's criminally overused, if not outright ineffective in most films, but the effects here are fairly realistic-looking.Yes, the entire budget is right up there for everyone to see on the screen, but at least desert vistas actually look like desert vistas. I hesitate in describing the Tharks as resembling Jar Jar Binks (which they kind of do) since they're more crisply rendered with a mixture of CGI, motion capture, and make-up, and not nearly as annoying, possessing identifiable traits that serve the narrative. Lizard dog Woola looks so real you'll want to take him home, while the pair of giant white apes Carter tangles with in a gladiatorial showdown recall the monstrous wompa Luke faced off against in The Empire Strikes Back.
The story does lull and lag in places (particularly the middle portion) while spinning off in a few different, sometimes problematic directions, but there was never a moment when I didn't care about what was happening or lost interest Carter or Dejah's predicament. Taylor Kitsch is solid as the lead, if kind of a blank. Then again, a blank hero is called for in this situation. This isn't the kind of movie that rises or falls with his performance so trying to pin the imaginary "blame" on him is pointless since any actor could have been plugged into the role with the same result. Whether he should have taken it is a different discussion altogether, but I'm glad he did regardless of the fallout because at least it's a start. He'll survive this and hopefully move on to edgier work, which is where his strength more likely lies. But all things considered, he did really well. Parts as memorable as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights don't come around every day on the big or small screen, so we may have to wait a while for him to find something comparable.
As tanned, tribal tattooed warrior princess Dejah, Lynn Collins is a real find in her first leading role. After co-starring in a handful of smaller, underseen projects without really registering much, she sure registers here. Her character is strong, beautiful, independent and intelligent, representing exactly the kind of lead female role we need more of in adventure movies. Collins is more than up to the task, never making her feel like a damsel in distress. If there were any justice she'd be a huge star off the back of this film. Instead, being in her mid-thirties, she may not even be given another opportunity at this level again. That's a shame and a sentence I should never have to type, but a chilly reminder of how Hollywood works. Give Disney credit for casting a mature woman in a woman's role instead of a kid in hopes of reeling in teen audiences. Now doing THAT would have been greedy, not to mention detrimental to the film.
If John Carter's guilty of anything it's over-ambition both in terms of visual design, and in telling a more involved story than was necessary. Not much of a crime from where I sit. That overreaching is especially evident in convoluted, twist-laden ending, which takes a bit to come into focus, but pays off in a satisfying finish. Much like Disney' unfairly maligned Tron: Legacy, it's a family film, but PG-13 and not made exclusively to sell toys. It's closer to an old school sweeping sword-and-sandals fantasy epic than a superhero movie. Of course, no one knew what it was. But Stanton did, and his slavish devotion to the source material is a creative plus that alienated confused audiences unfamiliar with "John Carter From Mars," but found it difficult to get psyched for a film simply titled, "John Carter." Knowing how it concludes, the title change does actually make sense, working best under the assumption they'll be a sequel. Barring a sudden resurgence on DVD, that seems unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility. I wouldn't mind seeing one, or revisiting this because at least it dares to be different. It mostly succeeds. With untested stars and an ambitious story, John Carter takes chances. And when movies like that stop being made, then we're really screwed.