JOHN CARTER (2012)

I've taken a bit of a break from reviewing for the last couple of weeks, and for a few months before that I was on a steady diet of staid and solemn Oscar bait. So I was actually excited to head back to the IMAX, don my 3D glasses, and watch $250 million worth of sword-wielding heroes, snarling villains, and six-limbed aliens beating the holy hell out of each other for a couple of hours. (Serious films have their place, but let's face it: there is nothing about Albert Nobbs that could not have been improved by handing Glenn Close a sword and throwing her into an arena with a couple of giant, furry gorilla monsters.)

But as the inaugural blockbuster of the season, John Carter is a bit of a disappointment. It's not horrible: it's just dull, cheesy, and deeply, deeply silly.

Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), and based on a series of pulp novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter stars Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) as the eponymous hero, a Confederate cavalry officer turned treasure hunter who accidentally stumbles upon a gateway to the planet we call Mars, and which the natives call Barsoom. Just as Earth empowered his literary descendant Superman, Carter discovers that the lighter gravity on Mars grants him super-strength and the ability to leap ridiculous distances in a single bound. These skills come in handy when he becomes involved in a planetary conflict between the peaceful city-state of Helium, the conquering warlords of Zodanga, and the green-skinned, six-armed nomadic tribes of the Tharks.

(And, as I complete that description, I sense a great disturbance in the force, as though millions of women—and hundreds of thousands of men over the age of 15—had suddenly cried out that they don't have any intention of seeing John Carter, thank you very much.)

The three teenage boys who sat behind me in the theater did enjoy John Carter far more than I did, but upon leaving the theater I overheard one of them complaining about how shamelessly the film ripped off Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar. He had the sequence of influence wrong, of course—Burroughs published the first John Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, in 1917—but he was also right: the fact that generations of other writers have followed Burroughs' formula doesn't make this film, in 2012, any less formulaic. John Carter may be one of the original sci-fi action heroes, but by now there is nothing original about any of this.

That wouldn't be such a problem if John Carter were more fun, but it's a bit of a slog; the film clocks in at just over two hours but feels much longer. Much of the problem is the tone, which is admirably—but misguidedly—faithful to its pulp fiction roots. The screenplay—by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and pulp-aficianado Michael Chabon—plays it completely straight with the earnest, self-serious values and clunky dialogue of Burroughs' world, in a way that simply doesn't translate to the 21st century. In this day and age, this approach comes across as almost unbearably cheesy and lacking in self-awareness. An ounce of wit or irony in the dialogue would have gone a long ways towards making John Carter more like Star Wars and less like The Phantom Menace.

And though I am a great admirer of Kitsch's performance as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, he is woefully miscast in this underwritten role: John Carter has virtually no character on the page—he is neither innocent Luke Skywalker nor roguish Han Solo—and if he was going to come to life on the screen he'd need an actor who brought more to the table. As it stands, Kitsch's John Carter is a pretty cypher who exists on an emotional spectrum somewhere between stoic and glowering. Supporting roles are no better written: Willem Defoe and Samantha Morton manage to bring a little life to their four-armed motion-capture avatars, but Lynn Collins is rather forgettable as the sword-wielding love interest, and Dominic West looks appropriately embarrassed as the sneering villain.

The lion's share of the blame for this quarter-billion dollar mediocrity must go, however, to Stanton. Making his live-action debut after working on (and directing two of) a long string of fabulous Pixar movies, Stanton does not bring anything close to the same magic to John Carter, which often feels like an overblown (and less fun) version of an '80s B-movie like Flash Gordon, The Ice Pirates, or Krull. The CGI-creatures are technically well-realized, but the expensive special effects look downright amateurish in many sequences, and the visual storytelling is muddled and strangely joyless. (And it hardly bears mentioning, but the 3D effects are absolutely worthless: any lingering goodwill I had for the technology after Hugo was drained away after 10 minutes of John Carter.)

But the real disappointment is in the basic elements: the lackluster story, the painful dialogue, and the wooden characters. It is probably unfair to bring comparison to Stanton's work for Pixar, but I have trouble believing that any of these elements would have escaped the first-draft revision process at the Pixar studios. It makes one realize that the difference between those films and John Carter is not a matter of technology, but of care, wit, and heart. Sadly, John Carter is lacking in all three.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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Comments

  1. Speaking of Tim Riggins (and NOT of "John Carter"), last week the Mitchells finished the final (and 70-something) episode of "Friday Night Lights." I never watched it at all while it was on television, but it was that rare series that captured Nancy and myself (and, unbelievably, Donavon). For me, it was entertainment on the level of a high quality soap opera. I don't need to plumb the show's depths, but I did commemorate our investment of umpteen hours of viewing with the purchase of a "Buddy's- Dillon, TX" pint glass.

    And. Roger Ebert said something about being disappointed that the Thark's never had to pull on a shirt. To up the ante, I would say turtleneck.

    1. I'm actually halfway through a rewatch of Friday Night Lights right now (working up to the last season, which I haven't seen before). I love that show. (Hands down, the best marriage on television.)

      1. I liked how they dropped characters who graduated, but I always wondered what happened to Santiago (Buddy Garrity's prison ward).

        Though Kyle Chandler was great (especially with all that screen time, and over such a long period), I was impressed with Liz Mikel as "Smash" Williams' mother. Liked Matt Saracen's grandmother, Billy Riggins and his stripper wife, and East Dillon's Principal Burnwell. Buddy Garrity was a really good portrayal. And Joe McCoy was an absolute total asshole. Good to see Janine Turner again, as I was reminded of "Northern Exposure"…and "Deadwood's" Joanie.

  2. Sounds like it would have been more fun if you'd have brought N. and her snark along.

    Glad you're back – I've missed your Walking Dead reviews!

    1. N. does get all splooshy for Kitsch—or, specifically, for Tim Riggins on FNL—but not even that could persuade her to join me for John Carter, alas. (No more than her lusting after Jason Mamoa could entice her into seeing Conan the Barbarian.

      And sorry about the Walking Dead hiatus: my day job has forced me to cut way back lately, but I'm planning to do a long post after the season finale next week.

  3. I was one of those few people who watched Friday Night Lights while NBC was airing it. There were so many great characters and so many great storylines, but what the heck happened in season 2?! Do you think the network pressured the writers to make the show more appealing to younger viewers? I know season 2 was shortened because of the writer's strike, but I'm still mystified by the quality of the writing in season 2. Were they sabotaging the show?

    It was also strange how many of the new characters in season 2, including Santiago and Carlotta, were abruptly written out of the show. Smash's girlfriend from season 1, Waverly, just disappears too.

    There were so many great episodes. I'm glad a lot of people are discovering the show on Netflix streaming.

    Cheers!

    1. I watched FNL in its initial run as well–at least until it moved to Direct TV–and couldn't understand why everyone wasn't watching it. But yes, Season 2 was clunky: I do think they were trying different things to try to secure an audience, and most of them didn't work. The murder storyline is the worst offender, though I recently rewatched the entire series and was reminded that there were always really melodramatic plot lines, right from the first episode. (Smash does steroids! Riggins steals drug money from a meth dealer! Street goes to Mexico for life-threatening shark cartilage survey!) They got away with it because the cast was so good, but in retrospect the Tyra-and-Landry-Kill-a-Rapist story wasn't as out of place as it seemed at the time.

      1. Hi UC,

        You've got a good point there about the melodramatic storylines being present, even in the first season. I had the pleasure of introducing my sister to the series this past summer. Rewatching the series premiere, I was struck by how the teenaged characters were introduced as familiar stereotypes and how much the tone of the episode shifts dramatically after Jason's injury.

        I suppose this isn't the best place to be commenting on FNL; but thanks for your reply.

        Cheers!

  4. Hi UC,

    I just re-read your posted dated March 11: You haven't seen the 5th season yet?!

    It's amazing. Yes, it is "hands down, the best marriage on television." I just wish that more people could have discovered the show in the last 3 seasons. There were just so many episodes in the last two seasons, especially, where I found myself cheering for the characters, and incredibly moved by the storytelling.

    Let me know what you think of the series finale when you get to it!

    Cheers!

  5. I've watched them all now, Simple Gardener. (Can I call you Chance?) I loved it, of course, and particularly liked the focus they put upon the marriage of Coach and Mrs. Coach in those final episodes.

    Of the final seasons, I will say that I don't think they ever managed to make Vince, Luke, and (especially) Becky as real and engaging as the kids from the first few seasons, which is why the most poignant moments came from bringing back Matt, Tyra, and others. (Though I loved that moment in the finale when Vince tells Coach, "You changed my life." Sniff, sorry, something in my eye…)

    One random observation: watching the whole series again, I got increasingly irritated with Coach for never acknowledging that Matt Saracen was about the best possible suitor for a daughter that any father could ever hope for: I really wanted a moment in the finale where he said that to Matt. (There was one nice line early in the series where he says to Tami, "It could be worse; she could be dating a serial killer, or one of the Riggins boys.")

    1. Hi UC,

      "Chance" is fine by me…. (It's all a coincidence!)

      I found myself getting caught up in Luke, Vince and Jess's characters in the next generation of young actors. Like the young characters in the earlier generation, I really enjoyed watching these flawed characters—maybe human is a better word—struggle with their situations.

      Sentimental guy that I am, I always felt uplifted by their small victories and their decency. (I wish the world were filled with more people like these characters, and especially their mentors, Coach Taylor and Tammy.) They didn't always make the best choices, but I think many of them were, at their core, decent and humane—even the louts like Billy Riggins and Buddy Garrity.

      And yes, like you, I found those last glimpses of Matt, Tyra, Landry and Tyra poignant and moving. (I could never abandon nostalgia and sentimentality!)

      Not being a father myself, I can't imagine how difficult it would be for Coach Taylor to acknowledge Matt as a man worthy of his daughter—even a daughter like Julie. (As an overprotective, older brother, I can tell you it's very difficult.) I'd like to imagine such an encounter happening during that last jumpcut before we see young characters embarking on their futures. I don't know if I'd have been able to hold it together otherwise.

      Thanks again for responding.

      Cheers!

  6. Maybe it's just me, but I became increasingly disappointed with Julie's character. She started out as a smart, snappy foil to her football-obsessed dad, and ended up whiney, snotty, and lazy. Matt should've moved on from her.
    Was Julie's development intentional? Am I giving too much credit here? Her parents were so driven and pro-active. Maybe she was bound to be something else.
    Again. A highly effective soap opera.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Yeah, I think a lot of people felt that way about Julie, myself included. To the writers' credit, Julie consistently made bad relationship choices. I chalk it up to teenage rebellion; it happens in spite of good parenting.

      Cheers!

  7. This is my first visit to your site, UC, but I'm enjoying the reviews very much. In the above review, you have described PRECISELY the tukas-crushing, mind-numbing experience that I have long feared "John Carter" will be for me (when my Burroughs-afficianado friend decides to cash his raincheck to go see this six-armed dog with me). You have inspired me to do all I can to convince my friend to forego this "mediocrity" and go see "The Cabin in the Woods" or "Hunger Games" instead.

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