There has been a lot of hullabaloo about the movie John Carter
in the film industry and around the blogosphere the past couple of weeks.Starring this action figure.
Mostly it’s been folks railing against Disney’s marketing decisions which included removing “of Mars” from the title and the failure to mention the film’s successful director
, Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter
, and arch-typical storyline that set the stage for 100 years of pop culture
; everything from Flash Gordon to Avatar
to Noah Wyle’s character from E.R.
But all of that negative press coverage has distracted from one very important thing: I just worked the world hullabaloo into a modern film review.
Also: the movie is not very good at all. Except for this part. This part is very, very good.
If the original film trailer seemed like a mixed bag of things you’ve already seen in other movies, that’s because the entire film is that way. While some detractors would accuse John Carter
’s creators of stealing -- and others could accuse those detractors of being morons for not realizing Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote all these things a half century before the many rip-offs -- the fact remains John Carter
is a wet hot mess of half-formed
characters, and generic
The film starts off with voice-over narration about the political history of Barsoom (Burrough’s mildly ridiculous name for Mars), accompanied with frenetic battle scenes involving characters you know nothing about and care for even less. The story then jumps to John Carter in 1881, narrowly escaping a mysterious pursuer who you also know nothing about. Then things jump again and Carter is seemingly dead (off camera) and his nephew is summoned to claim his estate, all the while the audience wonders, “what happened to those robed politicians on Marsoomenin (SP?), isn’t this movie about that stuff?”
Once Carter’s nephew picks up his journals and begins to read, the story does settle down into a straightforward narrative ... by jumping back twenty years smack into the middle of a back story which in itself has another back story.
If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is, and things just get more confounding from there when the filmmakers introduce no less than six subplots that require copious amounts of grand exposition.
The thing is, John Carter
has a lot more in common with Attack of the Clones
than the divisive stadium battle sequence you glimpsed in the trailer, it also boasts many of the same weaknesses that plagued that prequel and its ilk, Phantom Menace
, Crystal Skull
, The Matrix
sequels et al ...
The most glaring flaw is the lack of a truly decisive protagonist with a clearly defined objective. Sure, Carter’s Civil War history has given him a rich pathos for which actor Taylor Kitsch to brood with, but the screenwriters also used this fact to carve the central theme of the story: John Carter doesn’t take sides. Which, in an action movie translates to: John Carter doesn’t fight. And herein lies the problem. Self doubt and passivity are passable character traits for the protagonists of indie dramas, but make
for very unheroic heroes. Sure Luke Skywalker whined a lot, but he was whining about not being able to take action. Likewise Neo wades through the necessary reluctance to create proper drama, but consistently pushes through his failures because he feels it’s the right thing to do. In John Carter
, our hero constantly avoids conflict not because he hates violence but because he doesn’t like people telling him what to do, effectively turning our Christ figure (same initials, anyone?) into a pouty-mouthed diva.The film also stars Willem Dafoe, seen here on the right.
To be fair, John Carter of Nazareth isn’t completely passive and does ultimately “take a stand” in the film. But this particular scene, a surprising powerhouse of editing between Carter slaughtering an enemy horde and a flashback of him literally burying his past, only serves as the exception that proves the rule. Seeing a hero be a true
hero halfway through the film just makes you wish he’d been that way all along.
But even if Carter’s nature had been more clearly defined, he still would be a hero without a quest. Genre films like this, the ones with a strong foothold in Western story structure, need a specific endgame for the protagonist to strive for. In Star Wars
, Luke must get the Death Star blueprints to the rebel alliance. In Lord of the Rings
, Frodo must carry the evil ring to the only place where it can be destroyed. As for John Carter ... he wants escape the army, and then he wants to escape the Tharks, and then he wants to travel down a mysterious river, and then he wants to save the princess, and then he finds out the Therns are going to destroy the universe so
he hops around a lot and things blow up. And while of these are fine pursuits for an action hero, in this case more is less as the story becomes so cluttered with mini-motivations the audience is left with no time to really sink their hearts into their hero’s plight.
Much more could be said about the film’s clutter of confusing characters, long boring scenes of exposition, and wince-inducing dialog (I know it
refers to the sun, but naming a Martian city "Helium"
allows for characters to say things like
“I studied at the Science Academy of Helium!” and elicit
awkward laughter from a crowded theater).
Likewise, much could be said of the film’s fine special effects and cinematography.
But in the end it’s all just so much wasted effort for a big-budget misfire that leaps for greatness and lands just this side of horrible.