The Martians' Chronic Ills
A hundred years ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to John Carter, a retired Confederate soldier who finds himself transported to Mars and roped into an alien civil war. Burroughs, also the creator of Tarzan, is widely credited with inspiring much of the last century's popular science fiction: George Lucas cites the John Carter stories as one of the seeds of Star Wars.
But I don't care about Edgar Rice Burroughs, and am willing to bet that ninety-five percent of moviegoers wandering into the multiplex this weekend for the opening salvo of Blockbuster Season don't, either. In Disney's John Carter, they'll just see a bloated, boring mess that looks like every other off-brand fantasy movie of the last decade--namely, the Star Wars prequels, crossed with Prince of Persia.
And that's okay. No matter how worked up sci-fi nerds get at "stupid" audiences not appreciating the fact that the John Carter books established most of the clichés they've come to expect in such movies, the fact remains that street cred won't save a film that simply indulges in clichés. Objectively, John Carter is not a terrible movie. It just kind of sits on the screen and asks the audience to believe--along with the characters--that this is a new and thrilling adventure. Sure, there are airships firing multicolored lightning bolts at each other, six-armed warrior-giant Martians, and plenty of elaborate sets. But if you're over the age of twelve and find this thing genuinely interesting, I advise you to rid your diet of lobotomizing agents.
In fact, I'll go a step further and suggest that John Carter actually is a terrible movie, by virtue of the fact that the Mouse House spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to make and market something that is, at best, mediocre. I'll leave the "imagine what good that money could have done in the world" hypothesizing to the experts; purely as a moviegoing experience, it's a damned shame to think that this is the best entertainment that kind of cash can buy.
I'm exhausted just thinking about the film, so I won't bother with any more of a synopsis than what I've already provided. Look at the poster if you need more clues. I will say that the principle cast is incredibly unimpressive. As John Carter, Taylor Kitsch spends much of the film shirtless and growling like Corey Feldman impersonating Wolverine. Lynn Collins plays Dejah Thoris, a headstrong scientist/princess/love interest (SPOILER!), and Willem Dafoe pops up as the voice of a four-armed Martian leader whose main attributes are surliness and the inability to get the main character's name right.
The movie's one bright spot is Mark Strong's turn as Matai Shang, a member of a mysterious alien race who manipulates both sides of Barsoom's civil war to their own nefarious ends. His character is cunning and smarter than everyone else on screen, and it's amusing to watch him interact with people the way a third-grader might polish the glass on his ant farm. When Strong leaves a scene, he takes all interest with him--leaving us trapped with untold more minutes of allegedly rousing action and expository dialogue that reveals absolutely nothing of importance to the overall plot.
I also liked the last five minutes, which take place on Earth and concern Carter's nephew, Edgar (Daryl Sabara). There's a nifty bit of intrigue and imagination that is wholly out of place with the rest of the film; not to mention a closing shot that mirrors one of my favorites from last year, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part One.*
The reason the last few scenes succeed is because they offer what the others don't: developments I hadn't mapped out before sitting down to watch the film. Director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon fail Burroughs' legacy by not giving any clue as to what made his stories so revolutionary. Again, the "he got there first" argument doesn't work in a medium that has been so heavily saturated by imitators. The best thing they could have done was to pay brief homage to the story's roots and then created an entirely new John Carter tale--as well as an entirely new paradigm for mainstream sci-fi blockbusters.
The logical, fiscally responsible answer to this idea is that no studio wants to risk so much money on stories that might genuinely surprise or challenge the "Hey, what's playing?" crowd--not anymore. Maybe if Stanton had stayed true to his Pixar roots and gone with a truly out-there, all-CG cartoon, John Carter might have stood a chance. Instead, sadly, we're left with another 3D-IMAX extravaganza whose inevitable failure will earn it a place in the ever-expanding pantheon of franchise non-starters.
Further Proof That This Movie Sucks: Not even the fantastic composer Michael Giacchino could pull together a decent score. Like everything else in John Carter, the music is heavy-handed and far too obviously ripped off from other, better movies. I nearly shit myself when I saw his name in the end credits.
*I'm half kidding.