Sunday, 11 March 2012

He came from the South

John Carter: directed by Andrew Stanton, written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon

Existing as further proof that sometimes it’s great not living in the US in terms of wide releases, and that there’s more than a little positive to be found in avoiding any sort of blather about soon to be released films which pervades the interwebs around this time is John Carter. An apparent multimillion dollar blockbuster I know that John Carter has been in the conversation for some weeks now, and me and my insular self has managed (with my tunnel vision) to ward off any significant knowledge of it. The thing is, though, I didn’t avoid all talk of John Carter because I was worried about spoilers, or falling for the hype and being disappointed. I was never legitimately interested in John Carter, not really. But, it’s March and I’ve been an abysmal movie-watcher in relation to 2012 thus far, so I’ll bite. And, art or no art, show business is a *business* and Disney has been consistently trying to land a solid blockbuster since Pirates of the Caribbean, and true I’m not quite sure why there seems to be something a bit frenetic in their desire for this one to succeed, but such it goes.
What John Carter is, is vague spin on the-typical-roaming-hero-in-search-of-something-to-be-heroic-for-tale. At the end of the American Civil War and finding himself on the wrong side of some Indians our eponymous finds gold in a cage just before being *magically* transported to another planet. We’ll come to learn that this is Mars, and it is besieged with “real” people as well as aliens. There are, as one would anticipate, duelling armies, rampant evil and a princess at the centre of it all. Carter is, on Mars, a superhero (with its lesser gravity and whatnot) and amidst being captures by the alien-like Green Martians and then vowing to help save the human-like red Martians shenanigans ensue. What I find most interesting about the film is that it’s based on a series of books whose release dates back to 1917 making this, unless my brain is more muddled than I think, one of few superhero/wandering hero tales not adapted from a contemporary novel or comic book series, which would explain why – despite the very stringent modernisation of the film itself – basic tenets of John Carter might seem delightfully archaic if you look hard enough.

Whether or not it’s one of the archaic roots (or whether it’s evidence of backstory being lost in translation since as I noted Disney is intent on making a blockbuster franchise here and it’s more likely than not that John Carter will spawn a sequel which suggests, for me, that things will be kept close to the breast of the filmmakers as we’ll have to watch key secrets of our protagonists being revealed throughout the decade) John Carter is –at times devastatingly – low on explanation. This, is a positive in a way because by being low on explanation it also becomes low on exposition which is something which almost always works against so many films of this ilk. Conversely, though, there are things like the machinations between the warring tribe, language barriers (which a serum to help John learn the language comes as a bit silly in a sweet, if inane, kind of way) but it greatly helps that screenwriters Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon are keen on maintain the most basic of storytelling devices and John Carter is not overstuffed with information, laced with a plot which is difficult to discern nor home to silly, ineffectual reveals keen on being plot devices.

In essence, story-wise, what we have here is a competent film. Reasonably detailed character pitfalls and advances, a realistic supporting bracket and very basic plot developments – that’s what the story has going for it. But, as you’d imagine….
It’s not really a story about the *story*. I’d rather not mire through the troughs of what it means when we critique a movie and allow that its story is not its bastion, and whether or not this is a bad thing or no. Both, because I’m too lazy to enter into an actual dissertation, and two because even if I don’t exhibit wholly love for John Carter I will willingly accede that the reason that award bodies tend to differentiate between things like, for example, best film and best screenplay rests on the fact that the two are not the same. Even if I do see the logic in feeling umbrage at people allowing bad movies to exist because they look good, or whatever. (And, maybe that – right there – is enough for me to offer on the topic, you decide). But, John Carter looks good. Although, stylised is probably the wrong word to use for it, its visuals do come off as a bit deliberate. And, there’s such an overwhelming modernity to the entire thing I’d have loved if the film was made in the seventies or eighties so that “Barsoom” (Mars) would look a little less high-tech than it does. But that is, admittedly, nit-picking on my part because – yes – the film looks good.

I bring it up, though, because in the typical vein of early 20th century literature John Carter is covered with a sheen of seriousness which makes it seem wrong in part for this sort of blockbusterish “this is so much fun” sort of film. Not because it isn’t fun (although, it really doesn’t try to be fun like – say - Pirates of the Caribbean is all about being fun or Captain America for all its serious undertones, and its failed attempts for me, still tries to be fun), but it’s not playful which is why I’d – as a novice – assume is the reason people aren’t as willing to cut it slack for issues they seem willing to allow in other films. But, truly I’m neither here nor there on that. And, even if its handled in the typically basic way you’d imagine it does raise some significant issues like parent/child relationships, honour, with touches at determinism and examining ones place in society.
So, the result is a visually stunning, surely directed (despite a basic bordering on rudimentary) film with performances ranging from lazy (Ciarán Hinds in yet another film performance where his performance is indistinguishable and where he seems to be sleepwalking, Dominic West - retroactively making me angry that he's in The Hour and got a freakin' Golden Globe nomination over Ben Whishaw) to competent (Collins, Strong) to pleasant (Kitsch, he’s an interesting performer and the role just sort of sits there, but I’m intrigued) to more than commendable (typically worthy voice-work from Morton and Dafoe). And, nothing’s wrong with standard. It’s better than a throwaway disposable feature and it’s pleasantly entertaining and not the least bit as officious as I’d have suspected.

All’s Fair / B-


Amir said...

The ambiguous story elements seem to have bothered me more than you. Tell me about the warring tribes! I couldn't figure out by the end what the real relationship between anybody on Barsoom was and I just gave in to the visual spectacle (which, for me, first and foremost means that amazing wedding dress!)
I think if I were invested in the characters and their stories more, I would have enjoyed the film a lot more too.

Also, I find Kitsch a little irritating. I think Collins was trying harder for the film's success. Kitsch just has an air of his hipper-than-thou real life attitude in his line deliveries that made me think he should care more. But I totally agree with you on Hinds. What a waste of great talent.

Chip Lary said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I can tell you there were 11 books. I read them all years ago. If I remember correctly not all of them had John Carter as the main character, but I believe he was in most of them. They do delve more into the backstory as they go along, but I don't know if that's why the movie did what it did.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

amir "Kitsch just has an air of his hipper-than-thou real life attitude in his line deliveries"

is it weird that i love that about him? collins now and then annoys me, but is generally competent. kitsch, i'm always intrigued by, even if his performance is occasionally odd.

chip i simply assume, that point. i'm not certain. i'm curious to see what they do with the sequels.