The perfect image to sum up a movie. But not this movie.

The line of dialogue with which I title this review is ironic, as I often try to be when using this gimmick. The reason why it’s ironic will be obvious to most people who see this movie. For those who haven’t (or, y’know, don’t get irony) the reason is that there’s nothing new about John Carter. The problems this raises are manifold. First there’s that the movie is based on a series of books written like 100 years ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the guy who created Tarzan. Those books influenced generations of science fiction writers and that influence has appeared on screen before. This makes John Carter familiar in a way that is perfectly manageable, and may even be a boon as it allows some room for a fresh spin that will appeal to modern audiences. But this was apparently not a priority for the Pixar alums, spear-headed by Andrew Stanton (his entire Pixar resume can be summed up as movies that are good stories told well, the opposite of what John Carter is), who made this movie. Unfortunately, there’s also the influence of the “me too” McEpics that are churned out year after year. John Carter has all the same problems that plague similar movies like Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia, or last year’s abysmal Conan the Barbarian remake and thus the familiarity takes on another, even more damning dimension.

What the above amounts to is that John Carter is an exceptionally boring movie. You’ve seen all this before and the only difference now is that we’re supposed to believe this is Mars and that the Na’Vi are now green and have four arms. I have to respect that mileage will vary in regards to the tolerance people are going to have for this shit. I know most people will suck this same pablum up over and over and never demand anything fresh or exciting from their McEpics. Even when you can get them to acknowledge that this shit is derived from a misfire of the imagination, and will in turn negatively impact the imaginations of the audience, they just suck that shit down some more. It’s maddening. Still, this is an Evan McCoy review and I’m going to get into more specific reasons why John Carter is the first truly awful movie I’ve seen in 2012.

The Tharks are the best thing in the movie, but even they are betrayed by the lack of time and effort spent on establishing them as any more than a clumsy racial allegory coupled with the Noble Savage pandering that made Avatar so damned infuriating for anyone with a brain.

The most obvious misstep that this movie makes is in plotting. John Carter has three fucking prologues, which is two prologues too many. Before we even get to the circumstances that bring him to Mars (Barsoom, as the natives call it), we have to deal with a lazily written VO introduction to the world of Barsoom and the vague conflict that has turned it into a wasteland when once, we’re told and not shown, it was a beautiful place much like Earth. We’re also introduced to Sab Than (Dominic West), a Thern (Mark Strong) whose name escapes me, and the super weapon that the former gives to the latter for inexplicable reasons. That’s a word you’re going to hear a lot in this review, by the way. Too fucking much of this movie is just there, without rhyme nor reason.

Anyways, I could have handled the exposition about Barsoom’s war followed immediately by Carter (Taylor Kitsch who is better than everyone says in this role) getting himself into whatever shenanigans ultimately lead him on his interstellar journey. Instead, we get what must be the most insultingly stupid framing device I’ve seen for Issus knows how long. The second prologue (and first bookend of the framing device) is actually Edgar Rice Burroughs, here the nephew of John Carter, discovering his uncle’s untimely death and the journal that recounts his days on Mars. This was just baffling. I mean, why the fuck do we need this nonsense?

Once we get to Carter, finally, he’s a grizzled civil war vet who just wants to be left alone to find his fortune. He grumbles about gold from a “spider cave” as he’s descended upon by Union soldiers who want his help fighting Apachis. Cuz he’s such a badass, Bryan Cranston tells us. It’s a nice way to set up just how frighteningly dangerous Carter will (sometimes) be when he finally gets to Mars. In fact, it’s a pretty good prologue and the only one this film needed. It went some way in getting me back into the movie, actually, and that lasted for a while too.

Finally on Barsoom, the movie gets interesting. The storytelling becomes confident, striking, and intuitive. Carter first has to learn to walk with his enhanced strength (gravitation or some such let’s him jump for fucking ever and stuff) in a cute montage. Following from this, Carter spends time among the barbaric Tharks and seems to learn their ways. Unfortunately, this is the next big hiccup the movie makes. Carter is seen to learn as much about the Tharks as the plot needs him to. Scenes where Thars Tharkas (Willem Dafoe, who really gives his all here) sort of buddies up to Carter are just bizarre. You’re never sure whether he’s a prisoner or what until much later. This is also where we’re introduced to Woola, the fucking space dog. If John Carter is going to be remembered for anything it’s going to be for this totally manipulative, stupid “character”.

In my opinion, Woola is the Jar Jar Binks of the post-Star Wars Prequels era.

Woola is sort of a nice example for much of what’s wrong with this movie. The reason why Woola is so loyal to Carter is unclear, though perhaps it has something to do with Carter sticking up for it at one point. It’s vague, though. I think Sola (Samantha Morton) says something about it but the relationship is never really established. It’s like one minute Woola is this cute animal that can run super fast or whatever, the next he’s Carter’s loyalest companion. This kind of lazy bullshit is typical of the movie: you’re just supposed to accept this stuff. Carter never seems to give much of a damn for the creature, though. In fact, and bizarrely, Carter never seems to give a fuck about anyone except Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

The one place John Carter seems to be trying hard is to make Dejah a decent character rather than the blatant sex object she is said to be in the books. In the movie, she’s a scientist who is close to discovering the mysterious (and completely vague and never defined) Ninth Ray. Some kind of power source that will save the planet, I guess. This is the reason why the Therns are helping Sab Than conquer the city of Helium, Dejah’s home, and giving him the powerful technology needed to do so. As such, Dejah is central to the movie and up to this point I’m totally on board. However, a lot of people are patting the movie on the back for making a “strong female character”. Unfortunately, these people are all men who in the same breath remark on how totally hot Lynn Collins is in the film (and she is). It’s a bit embarrassing, really. The fact is, Dejah’s not well-rounded but dressed up. What life there is in the character is provided by Collins, who gives the best performance in the movie. As written, though, the character is hopelessly pandering. Her faux-progressiveness is based on a few things: her fighting skills, yet she still needs Carter to save her more than once; her idealistic crusade to save Barsoom, which she hinges completely on Carter as if she can’t do anything herself or there’s no one else on the planet who would be sympathetic; her scientific expertise, which is so ridiculously glossed and lazy that it amounts to nothing and is quickly dropped by the movie. It’s seriously laughable and I can’t help but shake my head at all the serious, professional critics who are out there congratulating the movie and its makers for this character. Fuck right off. That Dejah, as written, is such a superwoman and yet plays second fiddle to Carter the whole movie tells you pretty much everything you need to know. Then there’s that her major conflict revolves around not her science or her combat skills or even the nebulous “cause” she keeps referring to but, yes Disney thank you, a fucking marriage.

John Carter also features one of those bullshit Instant Romances that infect pretty much every “blockbuster”. There’s not a lot of chemistry between these two, though, as Collins comes off a lot older and more experienced than Kitsch.

Another serious travesty the film commits is in its wasting of great actors. James Purefoy, Dominic West, and Ciaran Hinds all slum it in this movie, getting little material and even less respect by their script and their costume designers (holy fuck, by the way). Mark Strong is now officially fucking tired, playing the same goddamn villain role he always plays. The only difference between his Thern here and Sinestro in Green Lantern is that one wears robes and the other is a red elf.

Taylor Kitsch is probably not the best choice for this role, but he’s fine. Out of everybody, he is perhaps the most betrayed by the script. He is always at the mercy of whatever the horribly convoluted plot needs him to be and do. You can’t get attached to the motivations of a character who’s effectively a total puppet, and not because others manipulate him. You can pretty well see the gears turning in the screenwriters’ heads at every turn, but especially when it comes to Carter. It makes every scene that’s supposed to resonate or be cathartic fall completely flat. Why is John Carter overstuffed with plot and nonsense, for example? Because Stanton and co. weren’t sure they’d get a sequel so they blew as much of their wad as they could, when they could. This is counter-productive.

I loved the classic set-up and moment of calm before his huge fight with the Tharks, a fight I’d read about and looked forward to because it was intercut with scenes of Carter burying his family and seemed to be trying for something more sophisticated. It’s also reasonably supported by Carter’s declaration that war is “a shameful thing” earlier in the film. You do get a sense that this is not where he wants to be or what he wants to do, but also that the fight is supposed to be a transition for him into the hero he has it inside to be. That’s all fine and well but the sequence falls completely flat. The score, by the usually great Michael Giacchino, completely fails the movie but it especially fails here and turns what should have been a stand-out scene, one of the precious few in the movie, into something cheesy and cringe-inducing. Part of it is that the sequence just doesn’t dwell on any one beat or shot or even itself for long enough to register. Like every other action sequence in the film, this one is in a rush to get itself over with, as if Stanton finds all this violence icky and distasteful.

Going back a bit, that’s kind of a good way to sum up this movie: cheesy and cringe-inducing (far more often than not). Cheesiness is something that means different things to different people and there is always the reality that John Carter was not made for me. It was made for 12 year olds. Unfortunately, it takes itself too seriously too often to be able to shrug off criticism. It’s also too tedious a movie, fun and funny way too seldom, and completely underselling and thus not earning the “for adults” dramatic beats it tries to execute. Like the fight I describe above.

But people will insist that it’s target audience is an excuse for terrible storytelling.

Many times I’ve tried to articulate why this bothers me so much. A lot of people will give a movie a pass for shitty writing and storytelling by saying it’s “for kids” or that it’s just “mindless entertainment” or a “good time at the movies”. None of this shit is remotely valid, though. The problem, I’ve realized, is that movies like John Carter are a way that people, especially kids, learn about how stories work. This is why I call movies like this a “McEpic”. The fact is that stories are fuel for storytellers, much the way that food is fuel for the body. With shitty stories as fuel, only shittier stories will result. Kids, maybe more than anyone else, deserve good stories that are carefully and elegantly told. They are the most impressionable and they are at the stage where imagination needs good quality mulch, not fucking Brawndo (it has electrolytes!). This is why we remember and love so much of what was there when we were kids: a lot of 80’s adventure movies were impeccably well written and executed. Movies like E.T. or the first Star Wars trilogy are owed so much by attempts at capturing the same magic by people whose motivations as storytellers are completely obvious to the discerning viewer. Often, Pixar manages this same magic but somehow Disney has totally lost it no matter who is behind the camera.

These fucking costumes. I mean, it’s like the elves from Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy forgot a few layers or something.

Oddly, I think that John Carter would have been a better movie had it been animated. I don’t know to what extent the crew was made up of people from Pixar who might have been more used to animated films, but there seems to be a dissonance in the sensibilities that went into much of the art direction. Nothing in Helium or Zodanga (the evil city in the convoluted, poorly established civil war) feels real. It’s all just window dressing, the result of wanking by animation teams. The costumes are the same and, what’s more, they look cheap as hell. Nothing seems functional or practical and that would be fine in an animated film where there’s the added buffer between audience and text provided by animation’s inherent unreality. Here, there’s too much reality mixed in with the cosplaying and it simply doesn’t work.

A lot of people are going to go see John Carter hoping for some cool action. There are a few scenes where Carter jumps around and it’s actually really well done and looks striking and cool. Mostly, though, the inherent violence of a superstrong guy slashing people to bits with swords is hidden by fast cuts and over-editing. In fact, this movie has some of the most viciously over-edited action sequences I’ve seen. They are all extremely short, too, making sure that none of them have the gravity or staying power to help them be iconic or even memorable. This movie sorely needed them to be, too.

I’ve now written like 2000 words disparaging this movie. I feel like it’s a good time to say that there were things I liked, if I haven’t made that clear. I liked the Tharks. I liked how they were introduced, especially their impossibly cute babies. I thought there was some real potential for Thars Tharkas and John Carter to have a good old fashioned bromance, but then they spent more time with useless Sola. The fact that the Tharks and the Redmen share the same religion is interesting, especially since it underlines the parallels with North American history. It seems clear that the Tharks were there first, that the Redmen (related to humans, probably due to the Therns’ influence) came later and adopted some of the Thark customs (or vice versa) while despoiling the planet with their high technology and careless ways. The subtext of the movie is like a cereal box prize you were promised but somehow never made it to the box. You can imagine it, like I have, which requires a lot of reading into things that aren’t really taken up by the movie itself. Or you can ignore it, like most people will and like the filmmakers seemed to, and the movie isn’t any better for it. Above all this, John Carter is often visually interesting. Specifically some of the locations, the fliers, and some architectural details of the ruins and the cities of Zadonga and Helium. I also liked the detail in the Thark scarification, clothing, weapons, and tools. They felt more real than anything about the cartoonish Redmen.

Few movies are completely hopeless. Most of the movies I spend this much time on and still hate are movies that could have been better, that have glimmers of that better movie buried here and there. I always notice those glimmers and they make something like John Carter all the more disappointing for a neophyte like me and potentially heartbreaking for fans of the books who will go to this movie and be insulted twofold for their $16.

Mark Strong is a dumb fucking evil wizard with no clear motivation and who spends entirely too much time stroking his magic bracelet.

2000 words just doesn’t seem like enough. There is so much bullshit in this movie, I’m sure I could spend another 4000 words writing it out. To sum up, though, it’s a movie that fails completely at the script level (like so many do) and so the decent performances, sometimes interesting design choices, and earnest attempts at emotionality fall flat pretty much all the time. The plot is baffling and convoluted, pointlessly vague wherever it needs to be clear about a motive or relationship, and zipped through at lightning pace due to just how fucking much there is of it. Then there’s the fact that Carter is only as strong as the movie needs him to be, able to kill an 8 foot Thark with one punch in one scene only to get knocked around like a little bitch by regular-guy-redman Sab Than in the next. His ability to break chains and jump good are also subject to the whimsical demands of the script. The movie has no villain, no conflict we can concern ourselves with, and not enough concern for its own world-building to spend the time on it that would make Barsoom a real, living place.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, I understand Disney’s marketing schizophrenia. They must have known they had some bullshit on their hands. John Carter is just completely undercooked. Perhaps compromised by suits or too many writers (it has 3, of course) stirring the story soup, it’s simply clear whatever the case that they’ve put out another Beta movie and tried to pass it off as releasable. There really isn’t much difference between how movies like this get made and released and how certain companies handle their software. Since so much of John Carter was created with software, the parallel is particularly apt.

John Carter is just another McEpic. Another piece of cinematic junk food meant to separate stupid people from their money. It’s also not doing well in the box office or on aggregate review sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. It probably won’t get a sequel and I dearly hope it’s another nail in the coffin for movies like it. That they released this shit after seeing how well Conan the Barbarian turned out, let alone Prince of Persia, is fucking staggering.

I would still like to see the movie that John Carter sometimes wanted to be. I hate reviews that are about the movie the critic wanted to see, versus the movie they got, but I think it bears mentioning that excising the needless prologues, the shitty framing device (and thus the godawful ending), and sticking with the Tharks and their smaller, more realized world for more of the movie would all have contributed to making it better. In fact, ditching the Therns until a potential sequel and letting the Grand Backstory Conflict simply be the war between Helium and Zadonga would have been nice too.

And fuck, while I’m at it, doing something with the obvious American civil war/”Indian problem” parallels would have been nice too. I get that the filmmakers didn’t want to trod over political ground with their rollicking adventure movie, but that stuff is all so obviously there (from the book, whatever Burroughs said) and yet so incredibly inert that it’s downright distracting. Something that really would have made John Carter interesting is the presence of those elements. Let it be a fantasy story that directly deals with that stuff and contextualizes it, rather than chickening out and making it a useless background detail. I mean, why should we care about Carter’s war history or the fate of his family when the movie so clearly doesn’t (they don’t even give an explanation for their deaths). Let alone the war between the redmen of Mars, or the circumstances of the Tharks? This isn’t fucking rocket science.

Yes John Carter, you are ugly and you are also beautiful (sometimes) but fuck you anyways.

Advertisements