Project 52: 'John Carter'

Posted February 02,2013 - 10:58 PM

Ishtar. The Adventures Of Pluto Nash. Gigli. If you said "three of the biggest box office bombs of all time," you would be correct. A funny thing happened when I perused the list of biggest box office bombs, I started to notice a few trends. There are a lot of desert films on it (Ishtar, Sahara), an odd number of water films on it (Cutthroat Island, Pirates - surprisingly not Waterworld) and a bunch of films set on Mars (Mars Needs Moms, Red Planet and yes, John Carter). So, I guess you could say that Disney should have seen that one coming, eh?

John Carter

I know what you're thinking, "why would you subject yourself to such drivel?" The answer is two-fold. First, one man's garbage is another man's treasure. Just because almost everyone hates something doesn't mean that I won't like it. Quite often, I do like films that many people do not. Second, this is the studio that has been given the keys to that galaxy far, far away. Disney envisioned John Carter as its Star Wars before it actually owned Star Wars, so once the sale of LucasFilm was announced, I knew that I had to watch this film. So, was it as bad as everyone made it out to be? Oh yeah. I really, really wanted to like this film. I came in with negative expectations (it couldn't be as bad as everyone says it is), so even the faintest glimmer of a decent movie would have been something. But sadly, just as I thought the film couldn't get any worse, it did. I will say this upfront. I don't blame Andrew Stanton. I loved all of his animated works and it's clear that John Carter is well-directed. In fact, it looks like an expensive film. You certainly can't accuse them of taking a paycheck and pocketing half of the budget, it's all up on the screen. The problem is that what is on screen isn't really all that compelling and worse, it's confusing to the point of making your head bleed. Or maybe it was just that bad head cold that I had while I watched the film. So, where did it all go wrong? If I had to guess, the fault lies with the producers who made the ultimate decision to stick a wee bit too faithfully to the subject matter while neglecting to fill in some details in other parts. First off, the film is based off a series of books from Edgar Rice Burroughs. I've never read the books and that's probably why I was lost for the first two-thirds of the movie. Although, to be fair, if you're really expecting a film to take off and become a successful franchise, then you shouldn't expect the audience to read the source material first. All of the most successful film franchises stand alone as entertainment pieces on their own. It's easy, keep it simple or explain the hell out of it. Star Wars does a great job of keeping it simple. Good and evil are both clearly defined, there's a simple plot revolving around rescuing a princess and stopping a mass genocide machine and it's a self-contained film. Harry Potter is a textbook example (no pun intended) of taking a rich set of novels and making an entertaining film series without sacrificing anything from the books and not being too confusing. Having not read the John Carter books, I still feel confident that they could have made a film both entertaining and faithful to the source material. The film opens in the middle of a battle between two warring factions of humanoids on Mars. There's some sort of intervention by either an alien race or their technology (or both) and then the battle takes a definite turn in their favor. These interloping aliens, called Therns, look like the Engineers in Prometheus or an unplugged Dr. Manhattan from the Watchmen. We are only given slight clues to their motivation and end game and to be honest, I still have no idea what they want at the end of the film. I think if you save the Therns for future films, then many of the issues of the film take care of themselves. The problem when you include them into the plot is that you take away from other aspects. Forget for a minute that John Carter is transported to Mars (or Barsoom) from Earth (or Jasoom) thanks to a medallion that looks like something you'd find at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks. Even if you accept that you can simply transport from one planet to another, there are some things that you can't ignore. Why does John Carter inherit super jumping powers and strength just by being on Mars? What is in the magic drink that makes everyone speak English and where can I get some? If John Carter is from the Civil War era, then why is he not in awe of flying ships on Mars? They got it right in Star Wars. Everyone speaks English, in some cases the Queen's version and in one particular case, they get the voice of CNN to lend his dulcet tones. Sure, it makes no sense for the Martians to speak English, but when Star Wars came out no one ever said, isn't it weird that they speak English in a galaxy far, far away? Another thing that rubs me the wrong way is that they set up the entire movie as being told in a letter to "Edgar Burroughs" left for him by his friend John Carter who recently died on Earth. So, right away, you know that he can't die. They test this theory to the maximum while on Mars when a literal shit-ton (that's a very specific number) of evil green Martians attack John Carter all at once. He kills them all somehow despite being buried under a thousand or so. So yeah, he's immortal. Which means that the "death" at the beginning was a ruse and the worst-kept secret of all. What's up with John Carter's back story of his wife and child being killed during the Civil War? It's unnecessary and just drags down the plot. If you think Jar Jar is bad, just wait until you see this dog-like creature who is comic relief through the entire movie until the very moment when it seems that all is lost, this dopey creature proves to be a super sonic killing machine that saves the day at a critical juncture. I could go on, but I've wasted enough time on this film. It's sad, because there's potential here. The John Carter series of novels actually serve as the basis for many story lines that we see in Science Fiction films. So, how does this film shade my opinion in regards to future Star Wars films? It doesn't really temper my expectations. The good thing is that it proves that Disney is willing to spend money to make the best film possible. Ultimately, the execution by the film makers is the key component and I'm convinced that Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams will make Episode VII a film that will finally live up to our high expectations. John Carter, however, doesn't live up to even the worst of expectations. P.S. What's up with the shape-shifting Therns? That seemed convenient and a bit out unnecessary. Also, how much time passes on Earth while on Mars? Seems like a lot given the decomposition on John Carter's cave buddy. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins were adequate in their roles, but what was up with everyone else? I need to stop.