My first thought while watching JOHN CARTER was, wow, where did all the money go? I mean, it looks like it cost a lot, but what on earth pushed the budget into the stratosphere the way it did?
But still, as I watched it, it was fine and all but completely flat, uninteresting, and just problematic. Technical limitations aside, there’s probably a reason it took 100 years for John Carter to appear on film. Because, while most people can enjoy a good sci-fi or fantasy story, there’s a certain threshold before it crosses into a territory for die-hards (and kids) only. John Carter is one of those things. At a certain point the made up stuff, the silly names, the reality tweaking, it all just becomes eye-rollingly dumb to a lot of people. Myself included.
So when it’s handled by someone who wants to keep it as true to the source material as possible, as Andrew Stanton did, there’s a sort of tunnel vision problem that comes up. All this stuff is so cool to fans of the book, but it has to be made inviting to, you know, everyone else. Tone down some of the ridiculous costumes, smooth out and explain some of the outlandish plot elements. At least slather on a sense of wonder to it, instead of just treating it matter of factly as the film does. Aside from some initial surprise at his new jumping powers, Carter doesn’t seem all that interested in the new world he’s on. If there’s no curiosity from him, why should I care?
So what other problems were there?
If you’re going to cast relative unknowns as your lead actors, they better have the potential to be movie stars. They have to have that pesky “it” factor to carry a film like this and make the characters the icons they deserve to be. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are not those people. They’re not bad actors by any stretch, and they’re not a drag to watch. But they’re not very compelling either. I may not be the best judge on female looks, but Collins doesn’t look like a princess, she doesn’t have any real allure, and she didn’t seem passionate for her cause either. Concerned, sure, but she didn’t exactly convey a sense of desperate urgency.
Kitsch, on the other hand, is dull. He’s not especially good looking, his body isn’t that great (which is important is you spend 80% of the film shirtless), his voice is flat, and his performance is just as flat and passionless as his costar. He looks apathetic to his plight 90% of the time. His voice, for me, was distracting. Overly grizzled, like a guy in a high school play trying to sound like a senior citizen. It also sounded vaguely like James Franco’s voice, which just made me think they should have cast him. At least he’s convincing even when bored.
Just What’s Going on Here?
I’m not a big fan of nitpicking plot holes, but when there’s a list of legitimate questions that arises when you think back on the movie, that’s a problem. Some of this comes down to the tunnel vision problem when the story is made by a die-hard fan of the property. The kind of “Gandalf can fly them safely out of Mordor, but not in?” kind of thing.
What’s John Carter’s deal anyways? Why is he so upset? OK, something happened to his family. But what and why? It’s not entirely clear, nor why he seems to blame his country for it. There’s no sensical link between where he directs his anger and the source of his pain. But now that he’s an angry loner, what is he searching for? And why? Why is he suddenly an amateur archaeologist looking for riches? What’s he doing there?
Ok, now we’re on Mars. The goal is to get home. OK. He’s made it clear he doesn’t care about the struggles of the natives, even when there’s clearly a good and bad side, he remains all Swiss about it. Fine. They’ll have to change his mind about it. But do they? Not really. Since the audience will be empathizing with the other characters we’ll just expect our protagonist to fall into line. And he does. He enters not caring, and then starts caring, with little reason given for him to do so. At first he doesn’t trust the princess because she clearly only wants his help for her cause. He explicitly distrusts her. She lies to him, and he gives her a chance to redeem herself, and then we found out she lied again. When Carter learns of this, theres on reaction. So, burned by lies once, that’s bad. Lie again, ignore initial goals and help the liar. Really?
Tharks are at least the most interesting group on the planet, but their struggles aren’t too interesting either. Carter empathizes with Tars because they both share daughter troubles, but Carter gave no indication he cared about the Tharks, just Tars and his daughter. Now he wants to be their leader? Really? Why?
Carter spends all his time on Mars wanting to go home, looking for a way to leave and not caring about their problems. Sure, he falls for a girl, but in the end he’s suddenly all “Mars is the only place that felt like home?” Really? You spent all your time there looking for every reason to leave and ignore the goings-on. When did this change happen, and why didn’t I see it?
The Therns, the villains of the thing, are also unclear in their intentions. What are they trying to accomplish anyways? They’re clearly a godlike race of some kind, which always has connotations of benevolence to an audience. But it’s not clear if they’re benevolent or malevolent here. What is their goal? To destroy Mars? OK, why? They just destroy places? Why? Why do they take their sweet time doing it in secrecy? It’s conflicting to have a godlike people with murky goals, who are praised by the natives, but only Carter can see their true intent? Why doesn’t he tell them?
It’s doubly confusing when you color code these characters, and label the Therns the same as the good guys. Bad guys are red, good guys are blue, Tharks are green (and they’re also good), and the Therns are also blue. When you color code it like that, the audience will come to associate blue forces as something for good and the red as bad. The Sith always had red light sabers for a reason you know. It’s a subtle problem, but it’s a problem. They couldn’t be any other color? They had to be the same shade of light blue as the good guys?
Yet, as I said, it wasn’t a bad movie. Most of the action is interesting enough. The dog thing is adorable and fun to watch. It moves along at a nice pace. The 3D was so subtle I often forgot I was watching a 3D movie. But that’s probably more of a problem than a blessing. Because why am I paying double the price for it then if it adds nothing fun?
It seems like something that could have been a great new franchise. But instead it was poorly handled and made it dull while being simultaneously ridiculous in all its style and sci-fi-ness. Disappointing.