FILM REVIEW: John Carter
- March 9, 2012 1:01 AM |
- By Eli Glasner
A massive movie based on a treasured pulp fiction classic, John Carter is a prime example of today's super-sized cinema. It's a richly articulated fantasy you'll forget the moment you reach for your car keys.
The story of John Carter starts with Disney, which was looking to create a sci-fi franchise for boys. The mouse house has the pre-teen princess crowd all wrapped in a pretty pink bow, but the young male demo has eluded them.
Enter Pixar wunderkind director Andrew Stanton. The filmmaker behind Finding Nemo and modern animated classic Wall-E was looking to make the leap to live action with this movie, based on the 1917 sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This was Stanton's dream job. Disney also threw in genre guru Michael Chabon to tidy up the screenplay and hired up-and-coming West Coast hunk Taylor Kitsch. What could go wrong?
John Carter is like Star Wars lite crossed with a Coles Notes version of Lawrence of Arabia, says Eli Glasner. (Disney/Associated Press)
A lot, it seems. Disney stumbled with the marketing early on, downplaying the Martian element in favour of the generic title John Carter (It seems Disney had been burned by other movies with Mars in the title, see Mars Attacks and Mars Needs Moms). Early trailers suggested something exotic and fast-paced, but also familiar. The result? It's an energetic movie mash-up -- imagine Star Wars lite crossed with a Coles Notes version of Lawrence of Arabia.
From the get go, the story is a muddle. On Mars/Barsoom, a battle rages between clans (You might wonder about these Martians who appear too human. We'll get to the tall green guys in a moment). Sab Thans (Dominic West) wants to rule the red clans. Some mysterious shape-shifting monks give him a destructive blue weapon to help his cause.
Before we can wonder why, we're whisked off to Arizona during the American Civil War. Here, we meet John Carter, a soldier who wants to leave war behind and finds himself transported into the Martian struggle thanks to a magic artifact. Carter discovers he has a kind of super-strength on Mars and, after a few stumbles, he's soon jumping around in Incredible Hulk-worthy leaps and bounds.
The problem with Carter's newfound abilities is that they just look cartoonish, for lack of a better word. The way Carter bounces from canyon to canyon brings to mind Mary Poppins floating through the air: there's no sense of effort, gravity or consequence. With much of the movie filmed in front of studio green screens, John Carter feels utterly artificial.
Add to this our leading man Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), who appears to hail from the Keanu Reeves school of acting. We're meant to see John Carter as the uber-man, but B.C.-born Kitsch is so laid back he practically slides off the screen.
Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch appear in a scene from John Carter. (Frank Connor/Disney/Associated Press)
Stanton spent somewhere between $200 million and $300 million US to make this film, which includes an extensive round of re-shoots. Yet all the tweaking in the world won't clarify the confusing film. First, there's the story of Carter, a war vet with a tragic past. Then there's Carter's relationship with the 12-foot-tall, four-armed warrior Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Mix in the battle between the Zodangans and Heliumites led by the princess-and-scientist Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). And don't forget about those mysterious monks, still skulking in the shadows.
I'd like to tell you all these elements combine in an artful finale that uses Carter's battlefield experience to deliver an insightful reflection on the folly of war. In reality, John Carter is about as clear as a Martian dust storm. With so many talented people sucked into this great red mess, it's difficult to figure what went wrong. Still, I wonder if the problems start with Stanton.
With Wall-E, he pushed animated movies to new heights. He wasn't afraid to challenge, and even condemn, his audience. The Pixar film had a surprisingly mature message for a movie presented as kids' entertainment.
But with John Carter, Stanton lowers his sights. This is a movie for the 12-year-old inside us, an old-fashioned adventure filled with airships and amazing monsters. Perhaps that's exactly the demographic Disney was aiming for, but Burrough fans will bemoan a monumental missed opportunity.
For the rest of us, who see the pop culture pastiche for what it is, John Carter is simply another amusement park ride. Leave your expectations (and critical faculties) at home and just watch the pretty colours whiz by.RATING: 2.5 out of 5. Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch offers a low-key, chilled out performance in the Disney action adventure John Carter. (Frank Connor/Disney/Associated Press)
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