Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2012

John Carter

A man without a country (or a planet)

Impressive as its scope may be, 'John Carter' can't live up to its ambition

John Carter
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on the story A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Samantha Morton, Ciarán Hinds and Thomas Haden Church
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 12 minutes
(out of four)

John Carter is a great spectacle that allows itself no room to breathe. It tasks itself with no less than the following: introducing an entire fantastical world, dramatizing a political conflict that serves as the film's backdrop, establishing a heroic main character in a separate fish-out-of-water narrative, placing that main character into a romantic subplot we're (presumably) supposed to care about, and framing all of the above inside a larger story arc intended to bridge this movie and its sequel(s).

That turns out to be too much of a mouthful for a 132-minute intro to a would-be franchise. There's too little of too much. None of the individual parts work by themselves, so they can't very well work as a whole, either. The film frantically shifts from scene to scene trying to cram in as much material as possible.

I never have a problem with a project being "too" ambitious. An abundance of ambition is a virtue, and though that's separate from the quality of the final result, it's always better to attempt too much than to attempt too little. So I admire the bigness of Andrew Stanton and Co.'s attempt to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs' famed series to the screen, even if I question whether they actually thought they could pull off so many distinct (and sometimes competing) narratives within a single movie.

At the very least, you could say this is a unique failure. I like unique failures. It's a failure that has some life in it, rather than just your run-of-the-mill bad movie. And it's not a disaster, either. Just a noble experiment that doesn't quite work.

It's telling - to me, at least - that the frame story is significantly more compelling than the rest of the film. It's a self-contained story that puts the title character's entire journey into a specific perspective. It is a crisp, tightly wound mystery during which I felt (and understood) more about John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) than I ever did when he was on Mars - and more about his relationship with the princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) than I ever did when the two were on screen together. This all lasts for about 15 minutes in total, but it's here that the movie finds the focus and vitality it lacks for the rest of its runtime.

As for the rest? It's an uneasy mixture of romance, action, political intrigue and special effects. There are elements of great imagination and wonder - the production design is consistently impressive - that Stanton can never quite manage to fully bring to life.

The central conflict on Mars (or Barsoom, as it's known there) is between the cities of Helium and Zodanga. The war has apparently been raging for years, but it has shifted distinctly in the Zodangans' favor thanks to a powerful weapon now in the hands of their leader, the odious Sab Than (Dominic West).

Helium is ruled by Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), who is considering accepting a peace offering by accepting an arranged marriage between his daughter Dejah and Sab Than. This, presumably, will unite the two cities. Little does Tardos Mors know, Sab Than is being largely controlled by the mysterious shape-shifting Matai Shang (Mark Strong), one of the Holy Sherns who have been manipulating civilizations since time immemorial.

Separate from that story is that of John Carter, a former Confederate soldier in mid-19th Century, post-Civil War America who is quite accidentally transported to Mars, where due to his bone density and the atmosphere of the planet, he has the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He finds himself the captor of a tribe of "Tharks," who are basically like Native Americans, except green and nine feet tall. Their king (or "Jeddak"), Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), forms something of a bond with John.

Eventually the two situations, naturally, become intertwined with one another, with John getting unwittingly involved with Dejah's struggle to save Helium from sealing an unholy alliance with Zodanga.

As the two romantic leads, Kitsch and Collins have a remarkable lack of chemistry. It doesn't help matters that the entire romance is forced upon them without any real exploration or depth, but if the two generated any heat, it would make up at least partially for that deficiency.

In general, I'm skeptical of the movie-star potential of Taylor Kitsch - so memorable as Riggins on Friday Night Lights, so instantly forgettable as Gambit in Wolverine. Let's just say his John Carter is more Gambit than Riggins. It's not that he's a bad actor; I'm just afraid he doesn't have the screen presence or charisma to be an effective leading man. Maybe he'll eventually prove me wrong, but this movie certainly doesn't make the case in his favor.

Ultimately, though, he's not the biggest of John Carter's problems. It's impossible to isolate one central issue as the overriding reason why the film doesn't work, but allow me to suggest that it feels consumed by its own epic-ness, which ends up swallowing everything else. It not only has to be a giant action extravaganza, but a grand romance and political fable, too! (Except it unfortunately buries the nifty science angle. What, too heady for audiences? Not epic-y enough?) Again, I admire the ambition. And given the talent of the filmmakers involved - Stanton did, after all, direct WALL-E and Finding Nemo - I just wish they could somehow hit a reset button, learn from the mistakes of this movie, and try this thing again.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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