‘John Carter’ a fun pop-corn flick.
March 14, 2012
John Carter is one the best popcorn films of the year and undoubtedly is a lush and gorgeous adventure, but you’ll probably watch it on DVD or streaming from your favorite Netflix-like service because of the reviews and bad ad campaign.
The movie defies categories, though critics have been comparing it unfavorably to every movie from Star Wars to Avatar to Indiana Jones. Superficial similarities aside, these comparisons mostly show that movie critics live and die by repeating old prejudices about new films.
The plot might be formulaic with its fish-out-water hero on an alien planet, but it’s the details that makes this a fine film.
The backgrounds are stunning in their stark desert beauty. The aliens are well-developed and equal parts noble and savage in the “noble savage” stereotype and you don’t want to punch them in the face like the blue elf-cats of Avatar. The costumes and art direction harken to ancient India and Greece, but set among towering alien cities of gleaming metal or the cliff cities of ancient Anisazi Native Americans.
The action is also quite satisfying. Apparently the censors can’t see blood or gore when it’s an alien shade of blue and being flung across the screen in prodigious amounts, so we get R-quality violence at the bargain price of a PG rating.
The flaw in this movie is that no one told the writer, producer, and director that it was supposed to be an epic. Industry insiders say that the movie was pitched as “Indiana Jones on Mars,” but someone should have mentioned to them that Indiana Jones isn’t inhumanly strong and doesn’t jump like the Hulk across alien landscapes. The same storytelling conventions won’t work with those elements.
John Carter himself is a distinctly American hero, but not in a good way. He’s not that bright and he’s independent to the point of self-destructiveness, and all attempts to humanize him seem to fail since they occur mostly in flashbacks about information the audience has already guessed. In many ways, he reminds one of the “stupid American” that sometimes crops up in foreign films, lacking the affability of a modern film lead and the grandeur of an epic character, somehow trying to be both and failing at both.
Perhaps the biggest tell that indicates a lack of basic of storytelling skills is that the movie ends in a draw. The real villains escape and the victories achieved in the movie seem hollow. I know that someone expected two sequels, but someone else forget to tell them that each movie should stand on its own.
The film looks as if they were trying too hard to fit the movie into a vision. For example, the actress playing in the romantic lead as the kick-ass princess of Mars said in an interview that she actually had to ask them to make her costume more revealing because the design was awkward and concealing.
Not to be too critical, but the lead actress should not be the one that needs to tell the filmmakers than the audience might enjoy seeing a little more of the perfectly-toned actress instead of an awkward body suit. “Make the lead romantic interests look good” should be the first lesson one gets in film school, and even John Carter needed to show a little more man-flesh instead of looking like a dusty hobo.
That being said, John Carter is still a beautiful and fun movie that even has some laughs. It won’t be the next Star Wars trilogy, but I expect it to do really well on DVD once word of mouth gets a chance to work and the grognards comparing it to fundamentally different movies go back into their caves.