Saturday, March 10, 2012

JOHN CARTER - Disney's ginger stepchild

JOHN CARTER is a movie so unloved by its studio that before it was released it was almost possible to recast it in its own Hollywood "underdog story".  Over the past six months, articles in the trade press have bemoaned Disney's lack of marketing strategy - the pre-commitment to the 60 second Superbowl ad (which was underwhelming at best) - dropping the "OF MARS" from the title.  The studio chief seems to have been backing his way out of the door, pushing blame for this fiasco on his predecessor - and, make no mistake, this movie IS a fiasco. A tent-pole movie whose budget is a reported £250m plus marketing, with no A-list stars and no brand-name recognisable source text.  Even a superbly made movie would struggle to earn this kind of money back, and JOHN CARTER isn't superbly made.  For that, I guess we have to blame writer-director and Pixar golden-boy Andrew Stanton (UP, WALL-E, TOY STORY, FINDING NEMO).  A director who has come across as so defensive on his UK press tour as to alienate his potential audiences.  His basic stance seems to be "we make the movies we wanna make: so screw the audience and the studio.  Steve Jobs told me we were hired for our taste."  Sub-text: if we, the humble ticket-paying audience don't like the movie, it's on us - we just aren't tasteful enough. It's also completely disingenuous to suggest that Stanton makes movies without studio pressure. If so, why the extensive re-cutting, the expensive re-shoots, the change in title, the retro-fitted 3D?  All of which are the studio's desperate attempt to get back more cents on the dollar than investors in Greek sovereign debt.  (Prognosis - probably about the same i.e. 30 cents on the dollar.)

All the negative press had made me perversely desperate to like JOHN CARTER - to become its champion. But sadly, the movie didn't give me anything.  It was just dull over-produced nonsense - a sort of trashy sci-fi B-movie that, despite its egregious budget, still managed to look pretty cheesy - a movie that hinted at action-adventure serials in the FLASH GORDON or INDIANA JONES or STAR WARS style, but failed to live up to any of them.  (Not that there's anything wrong with B-movies - we all love FLASH GORDON - but there's no need to spend more than, say, £70m, on a B-movie).  Apparently, the movie is based on an early twentieth century serial by Edgar Rice Borroughs (he of TARZAN fame) that ran to some 13 instalments. I have no interest in seeing any more.

So what's it all about, Alfie?  John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Confederate cavalryman, mysteriously transported to Mars where he uses his new super-strength (thanks to low gravity) to intervene in the war between Helios (good guys) and Zodanga (bad guys). He does this by enlisting the help of the hitherto neutral Tharks (the Ewok/Na'avi of this flick).  In the process, Carter falls for the Helios' Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) saves her from a forced marriage to the Zodanga Prince Sab Than, foils the manipulations of the mysterious Thern (Mark Strong) and brokers a reconciliation between a Thark father and daughter (Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton). Not bad, huh?!

This is your basic sci-fi, space-romance story in the B-movie style.  All good fun.  So what went so horribly wrong? Well, for a start, it just isn't fun to watch! The dialogue and delivery is remarkably po-faced and earnest.  The only actor who looks like he's having any fun at all is James Purefoy as a Helios General in the HBO Rome Mark Anthony mould.  Purefoy is a scene-stealer, and left me wondering what this movie had been like if he had been cast as John Carter instead of pretty boy and ex-Friday Night Lights star, Taylor Kitsch. Purefoy would've been more age-appropriate for a start, and has so much more charisma than Kitsch, who comes across as a whimpering pasty bouncing ball.  

Which brings me to the next problem: the look of the actors.  The movie is set on Mars, so of course, the Martians have to have red skin. Problem is, they just look like they've have had Essex-style bad fake tans (orange-heavy) and their costumes are so plastic-fantastic they look like cheap action figures.  Which brings me to the next problem.  Poor Lynn Collins - the female love-interest - is made to where a series of revealing costumes that are clearly catering to the same teen-boy fantasy as Princess Leia's bikini.  This sits ill with the fact that Collins is not a conventional beauty. I applaud that casting - it makes the fact that the Princess is a science geek more credible than, say, casting Megan Fox - but it seems hypocritical to make so much of her brains and fighting smarts, while dressing her like Martian Barbie. 

And this uneasy juxtaposition brings me to my final, and biggest problem with the film: its need to bely its B-movie status my pumping up the emotional gravity. Do we really need the father-daughter angst in the Thark storyline, for instance? Cutting that could've got the movie down to a 90 minute run-time for a start. And worst of all, the most crass scene is one where John Carter in battle is inter-cut with a flash-back to him digging his wife's grave on Earth.  No-one needs that kind of crass emotional manipulation in the midst of a good old-fashioned punch-up.  The inter-cutting was utterly unearned and utterly unsuccessful. Much like the rest of this unloved ginger stepchild of a movie.

JOHN CARTER is on global release in all bar Portugal, where it opens next weekend, and Japan, where it opens on April 13th.

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