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Thursday, March 8, 2012

John Carter

From Film Revolution

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, and Willem Dafoe

Directed by: Andrew Stanton

The Short of It:

This isn’t an easy endorsement to make. On one hand my wife loved the film, and the screening audience I viewed it with broke into applause on numerous occasions. For me it didn’t work, at all, on any level, and that was with me going in with lowered expectations. With that in mind I suggest seeing it for yourself. If the current numbers are any indication you’ve got a better chance of liking it than not. If you want a more in-depth view on what exactly irked me so much than please, keep reading.

A More in Depth Perspective:

I’m not going to do an in-depth synopsis. If you frequent my site you should know by now that it’s not my style to run down the story. If you need that you have IMDB. If you’ve seen Avatar, Dances With Wolves, or anything resembling them then you have a general idea of what’s going on in John Carter.

I’m going to be up front and say it right off the bat, I went into this with low expectations. The trailers hadn’t worked for me, I felt it was terribly miscast, and there was nothing on a dramatic scale that grabbed me. Sure, they show a few bang up action sequences in the previews, but after witnessing them in their entirety on the big screen even they were a major letdown.
I’m not familiar with the source material. It’s said that the original novel has inspired most of the sci-fi cinema we have today, including the revered Star Wars. If the novel is anything like the film I just saw then it’s safe to say it was more of an inspiration for The Phantom Menace than it was a New Hope (yes I just went there).

Let me do a quick rundown of the 3D aspect of the film. I’ve made it no secret that I despise 3D. I’m with Ebert on it, I believe it to be the bane of cinema. It’s unnecessary and does nothing to actually enhance the content or spirit of the film itself. It appeals to the same part of our brain that might be obtuse enough to enjoy ilk like Transformers or My Bloody Valentine. The only assistance it actually lends is to bad film makers. It allows them to cover up otherwise lazy pieces of celluloid with a big glossy band-aid, and it works, more often than not. The 3D in John Carter is about what you’d expect, it adds more depth to certain scenes, and in others its quite jarring, actually hurting the picture and causing the backdrops to look plastic and unrealistic. It also suffers the same problem with low light scenes that every other 3D film has experienced, they appear stale and washed out. Do not see this in 3D if you can help it.

Now onto the casting. This is perhaps the biggest mistake they made. Taylor Kitsch is terrible. And yes, I like him on Friday night lights. But here he is, in John Carter, playing the exact same character he plays on Friday Night lights. Each line of dialogue he delivers is done with breathy exposition, and with the gravely tones of Batman ala Christian Bale mixed in for good measure. It could be a drinking game it’s so bad. Even when the guy isn’t doing anything he’s breathing like he just ran a 6 minute mile.

His acting, while B movie bad, is only 95% his fault, the other 5% has to do with the script and the awful dialogue he’s forced to deliver.

“The Thark did not start this war, but the Thark will finish it.”

That is only one part of an awkward war speech made by our main protagonist. As I said, I’m not familiar with the source material, but I have to believe that it wasn’t this hokey, and if it was this hokey then it should have been put in the hands of a more capable actor that could take it and make it sound sincere. It’s a fine line that divides the chuckle worthy from sincere dramatic notes.

The character of Dejah, the princess of Helium, isn’t much better. The romance between her and Carter begins to feel like something produced by MTV…or something straight off the pages of the latest Twilight entry. My feelings were confirmed when the group of adolescent females behind me swooned with gasps and “awwws” when the first kiss finally came.

No one in the cast seemed to take the material seriously. The performances range from mediocre to bad. That’s the major part of selling a film like this, everyone has got to be committed to the gig, they’ve got to believe it, and you never get the feeling anyone here actually believed it. The performances are more on par with community theatre than a 250 million dollar film.
The action is a let down as well. There is one promising sword fight early on where John Carter goes dual swords on an entire army all by his lonesome. It’s the high point of the film, a moment where music and camera work mingle together and actually begin to approach high art. But, it doesn’t last, and the rug is ripped away as quickly as it was placed.

The fight with the White Apes that all the trailers keep teasing is actually more thrilling within the confines of the trailer itself. Everything that happens in the fight before and after those big moments you’ve seen is actually quite underwhelming.

Also, a big part of this story is John Carters extraordinary skills, specifically his ability to jump. And again, the film falls the short. The thrill of speed and height are never really communicated to the audience. Ang Lee was able to do it with his iteration of the Hulk. We felt the joy of leaping tall buildings in single bounds. Here, with John Carter, it feels electronic…it feels fake. I understand the need for CGI, but a fine line has to be walked, or the risk of disconnecting the audience becomes the reality. That is what occurred here.
This film feels much longer than it actually is. There are few, and I mean very few, action set pieces to be had here. I’m not a big action guy. But if you’re dealing with mediocre acting, lead based pacing, and flat drama, it’s something that is desperately missed.

I take no issue with the story itself. There is a classic sci-fi story to be had here, it’s simply executed very poorly on every conceivable level. I understand this is Andrew Stantons’ first live action film. He has churned out amazing animated films in Wall-E and Finding Nemo, but it’s a different genre, with different pacing and techniques needed. It still feels like he’s trying to direct a cartoon here. There are some terrible transitions, especially early on. One example I’d point out, and with a minor spoiler warning attached, is one minute you have the princess of Mars being promised in marriage by her father to the enemy of her city in order to bring peace, and then the very next scene she’s in an escape ship doing air battle with the very man she was promised to marry. There is no thought process from her, no planning her escape, or rationalizing it or learning how the enemy tracked her ship so quickly (seems Mars is the size of the neighborhood Wal-Mart), we are simply cast into the middle of it with zero set up. This film has a major problem with building tension and maintaining it. I literally did not care about a damn thing happening on-screen.

But…I as I said…I seem to be in the minority. I was surrounded by a throng of individuals, many of them critics, that ate up and loved the taste of every second. I really wish I could have joined them, but it seems we ate two separate meals.

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