Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: Disney's John Carter

 One of the bigger flops early on in this season has been Walt Disney's John Carter.  In many ways, this is a shame because it seems that the film simply didn't get a fair shake--there were reviews (from professional critics, who should be ashamed of themselves) lambasting the film before it had ever been screened for critics, simply based on set photos, leaked footage, and leaked information.

Some of the biggest complaints about the film are that somehow the story is incomprehensible, convoluted, or complex.  I take such strong issue with these statements as to openly calling any critic who claims this pretty much an idiot. I realize that to make such a statement is inflammatory, but nobody can ever accuse me of holding back my feelings or opinions.

This is also one of those movies that engenders specifically what I discussed in my inaugural blog: film critics at Rotten Tomatoes are at 51%, while audiences are sitting pretty at 70%.  Just another instance that proves most film critics have absolutely no idea what audiences want, which in the end completely defeats their purpose as film critics. 

The SF/F geek community, on the other hand, is split down the middle between people who loved it for what it was, and for catching the spirit of Burroughs' original, and those "purists" who are lambasting it for departing from the source material and claim that "catching the spirit" is a stupid, generic defense for anyone to like a film.

Yes, it absolutely deviates from the source material, and it deviates in ways that are beloved from the original book.  For example, in the original book, John Carter is inexplicably immortal--he has been the age he is for as long as he can remember, and has fought in dozens of wars across centuries of time.  He is a consummate Southern gentleman who has stumbled upon a gold mine with a friend, and plans to mine it and live in comfort for awhile.

In the film, he is an all-too-human man who is broken by the horrors of the Civil War and wants nothing more than to get his gold mine up and running and retire a wealthy man.  Why would they make such a severe change to the character? Well, put simply, how do you communicate the fact that a man is inexplicably immortal on screen, and have it not come off as stupid, trite, and just lazy and banal? In a pulp novel written in 1912, it seems mysterious and fits with the tropes.  Unfortunately, a film audience in 2012 isn't educated on the tropes of the early 1900's pulps, and nor should they be required to become so, to enjoy a big-budget film. In today's society and economy, a man broken by war who has lost his family and just wants to retire in wealth and peace is something with which people can identify. And unlike many of the SF/F fandom community, I absolutely don't feel that it changed his character in many important ways from the moment he got to Mars. He does fight against his destiny a bit more in the film, I suppose, and we'll get to that in The Bad.

Another change from the book--in the book, there's no real explanation for how Carter gets to Mars. There is a mysterious gas, he has an out-of-body experience, stretches his arms to the sky, and is just...on Mars, a fact that he readily accepts and moves on.  Again, this wouldn't play well to a modern movie-going audience, so the writers introduced a MacGuffin to get him there.  I had no real issues with this.

I'll put it simply: I loved John Carter. I loved it from start to finish.  I don't understand the criticisms of incomprehensible storytelling from what is essentially a pulp fantasy "us vs. them" story with a romance plot tied in--nothing remotely complicated about it at all. 

So, let's get on with it.  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of John Carter.

The Good
There's a lot that's great about this flick. As I mentioned above, there are many and sundry variations from the plot of the book in the movie, but overall the base, core story is the same (and I say this having just finished re-reading the original book): Carter goes to Mars, falls in with the Tharks (twelve-foot-tall green Martians with four arms), falls in love with a Princess of Mars (one of the human-looking red Martians) named Dejah Thoris, sets off on a quest to stop her from a force marriage to the Jeddak (chief) of her city's most hated enemy Zodanga, fights a great battle with the forces of Zodanga, marries the princess, and becomes a powerful and legendary figure on Mars.

While the above constitutes a minor spoiler or two, it shouldn't be anything that's utterly shocking to anyone who's ever seen a movie...ever.

Overall, this story is action-packed, the characters fairly well developed, and the portrayals top-notch.  I disagree with critics who have claimed that Kitsch's portrayal of Carter was flat or poor: I think he did a great job, and I think the casting of Dejah Thoris was brilliant and dead-on perfect. Sure, we would've enjoyed seeing her more, well, naked like she is in the book, but let's face it: this was a Disney movie rated PG-13. It's a wild ride from start to finish, and has more than enough violence and action to satisfy male moviegoers, while the love story should suffice to make it a pretty fine date movie. It is perhaps unfortunate that the marketing didn't portray any elements of the love story; this may have made a difference in the box office numbers.

Narratively, there's little to gripe about.  Are there plot holes?  Sure, but there are no plot holes that aren't forgivable for an epic planetary romance film that is at its heart a grand pulp adventure. Can anyone tell me there weren't plot holes in the original Star Wars trilogy?  Sometimes you have to judge these things not unto themselves, but through the lens of what you're watching, and in John Carter I didn't see anything egregious. 

The presentation of the Martian mythology and setting is pretty well spot-on, with a single major exception which I'll get to below.  This is my own defense for the film capturing the spirit of Burroughs' work. The changes in story were all made to make the narrative more coherent for a modern audience--the book is an incredible story of exploration and adventure, but it (quite literally) meanders all over Mars, as it's really a story about Carter wandering all over the planet while nursing a love for Dejah Thoris that is unrequited until about 2/3 of the way through the book. The film removes a lot of the elements of wandering and gives us a more straightforward plot. But they got the cultures pretty well right on, and I would've been looking forward to seeing the sequel, which alas probably won't happen now. 

The Bad
There's not a great deal of bad to list in this film, but the biggest ones are exceptions to the "mythology" aspect I mentioned in "the Good."  The first bad thing is the use of the Therns, who are minor villains in the second book of the series; essentially priests of a goddess cult, who believe they are far more influential than they are.  This film gives them shapeshifting powers and sets them up as some sort of galaxy-traveling secret society that manipulates, then lives off the destruction and misfortune of other worlds. The Therns in the film are the source of the MacGuffin that gets Carter to Mars, and I suppose if anything about the plot was in any way convoluted, it's the Therns; they seem to be preparing to take down Earth after they finish with Mars, though this is a throw-away bit that's really not much of a plot point, but only serves to explain why they were on Earth for Carter to get their MacGuffin to begin with. Still, it would've been interesting to see them get their comeuppance in The Gods of Mars, had it been made. I have to say, I really wasn't a fan of the presentation or use of the Therns in the movie at all. No movie is perfect, and John Carter's flaw lies largely with these guys.

The second "bad" is the secondary MacGuffin (yes, there are two).  This one is some sort of super-weapon that the Therns give to the Zodangan prince...but he rarely uses to any great effect, even shouting at one point, "What's the use of having this thing if I can't actually use it??"  One has to wonder if this inclusion was a wink and a nod to the audience, with someone realizing that the weapon was an error to include only after it was too late.

Finally, and this is something of a minor nitpick (but I am conducting a film review, so as long as I recognize nitpicks for what they are, I think it's okay to include them): they missed a grand opportunity to show one or two other monster races of Mars, while in the arena.  Specifically, they mention wild Banths several times, and yet during the arena combat sequence, the monsters unleashed are two white apes.  Why not a white ape and a wild Banth?  If you're not going to include a Banth, then why even mention them?

The Ugly
This movie, start to finish, is absolutely, undeniably gorgeous. The visualization of the Martian Landscape, the presentation of the various races of Mars, the special effects used in the transportation sequences, the flyers, the energy weapons...all of it is just phenomenal.  The movie reportedly cost $250 million to make, and the effects look it.  Unfortunately, there was probably no real reason for them to have spent $250 million on a movie that was somewhat untested as a property. One can accomplish incredible special effects on a much smaller budget than that (The Hunger Games did it on less than half of John Carter's budget).

The CGI was really well done, and this was key to the film, since so many of the things you encounter rely on that type of effect.  The flying machines looked great; the cultures of Helium and Zodanga looked excellent, and the Tharks--my God, the Tharks.  they looked fantastic, even if they weren't quite what I pictured from Burroughs' description.  I believed that Tars Tarkas was real, right there in front of John Carter.  That probably owes more than a bit to Willem Dafoe's portrayal of Tars, as much as it does to the CGI wizardry, but let's give credit where credit is due.  Of course, this is Disney we're talking about, so if there's anyone besides Lucasfilm and WETA Workshop that should be good at CGI, it's Disney. 

I expect that more than a little of that massive budget was spent on 3D, and here's where the Ugly gets a bit, well, ugly.  The 3D in John Carter was unimpressive at best. This is the problem with 3D: if you're going to do it, you need to go whole hog with it, don't just film a movie in 3D because it's the fad.  It increases your budget exponentially (especially if you do it in iMAX 3D), and if you don't pull it off like Tron: Legacy or Underworld: Awakening did, you're wasting your money.  John Carter's use of 3D was unequivocally a waste of money.  There were so many scenes in that film that could've been made breathtaking by the use of 3D, and given that it's Disney, and they did what in my opinion is the most gorgeous use of 3D ever in a film (the aforementioned Tron: Legacy), there's really no excuse for the 3D to have been as lackluster as it is.

One of the reasons you have so many people turning their noses up at 3D these days is that so many films do it just as a matter of course, and don't make it "pop."  I'm not talking about the tired, stupid gimmick of throwing stuff at the camera, either; I'm talking about making the vistas breathtaking.  Making explosions explode. Making flying machines really give you a bit of vertigo. 3D done well puts you in the middle of an entirely different world and blows your suspension of disbelief up to fantastic levels.  3D done poorly is "ho hum" at best.  John Carter's 3D was "ho hum," and it probably served only to inflate the budget.

Summary and Conclusion
John Carter is an absolutely rousing and fun rollercoaster ride of a film that looks beautiful and has enough action for the men, while including a strong enough love story to appeal to the "date movie" crowd as well. It is only severely marred by its lackluster use of 3D technology and its poor use and presentation of the Tharn race. All-in-all, the film is a must-see and it's a shame that it has done so poorly at the box office.

Score: 4 out of 5 Popcorns.


  1. Dammit...that's me making typos from going to fast, between Tharks and Therns. Apologies.

  2. Typos fixed. Thanks for catching that.