Movie Review: The Tragedy of the Meh, or JOHN CARTER

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The buzz on Disney’s John Carter was so good/bad/all-encompassing that it doomed the picture from the jump.  We spent literally years hearing about its litany of issues (Robert Clampett/Kerry Conran/Jon Favreau couldn’t crack the script; its eventual director – Pixar head honcho Andrew Stanton – reshot over 50% of his work after completing principal photography; the budget ballooned so far out of control that only a $700+ million gross could net the studio a profit) that the actual movie couldn’t help but suffer by comparison.  I mean, let’s face it: with all that noise, the only way you can stand out is by being the best thing since sliced bread (think Titanic) or the cinematic equivalent of the Ebola virus (think Heaven’s Gate).

At the end of the day, that’s John Carter‘s biggest problem.  It isn’t a masterpiece-in-disguise or an appalling trainwreck.  It is just okay.  Parts of it are very good.  Parts of it are not-so-hot.  But minus a couple of elements in both the positive and negative ledgers, none of it really engages the viewer, for good or ill.  Despite Stanton’s many passionate entreaties about what a big influence Edgar Rice Burroughs’ source material had on him, you never feel the same visceral connection between filmmaker and film that powered his animated masterpieces Wall-E and Finding Nemo.

Although, for its opening twenty minutes, you wonder if the journeyman patina is Stanton’s way of distracting the audience from his inability to satisfyingly engage with the material.  We get three opening scenes, slammed back-to-back and slathered in exposition.  It feels like, at one point or another, Stanton intended each scene to be the first scene of the movie, but rather than just picking one (maybe he didn’t want that reshoot money to go to waste), he decided to use them all.

First, we get a long exposition dump detailing the various warring factions on Mars – or Barsoom, as its inhabitants call it – followed by a battle scene between two such factions that establishes Dominic West’s Dubya-esque warlord and Mark Strong’s Cheney-esque alien puppetmaster (these analogies are way less subtle in the actual film).  Then, we get a more traditional wraparound sequence that follows young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Spy Kids‘ Daryl Sabara) as he receives word that his uncle, John Carter, has died; as part of Carter’s will, Burroughs gains access to his relative’s diaries, which contain the text of the movie itself (more exposition!).  Finally, we meet John Carter (the once and future Tim Riggins, Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War deserter and all-around broken man wandering the Old West like an extra from a Spaghetti Western.

This third part works the best, and in the Earth-2 where Cowboys and Aliens didn’t crash and burn at the box office, I can sense a John Carter that announced itself as a full-fledged Western – full of Indian attacks and narrow escapes and the great Bryan Cranston as a foppish Union soldier – before switching gears dramatically and sending its hero’s ass to Mars.  Instead, the movie can’t wait to let us know we’re bought a ticket to a sci-fi-action-adventure, not a futuristic oater, so we get an opening that twists itself into knots (first we’re on Mars, then we’re on Earth at the turn of the century, then we flash back to the 1860’s) just to assure moviegoers that their feature is more Avatar than Unforgiven.

My problems with the opening are indicative of the problems that run throughout the film.  John Carter is relentless in the amount of handholding it does.  When Carter meets the alien Tharks, we get an exposition dump.  When alien princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) finds she has to marry West’s rotter, we get an information dump.  When Carter discovers how he can return to Earth, we get a really long information dump.  And it’s so artlessly laid out; the mind reels when considering that Pulitzer Prize-winner and Certified Genius Michael Chabon co-wrote this clunky beast.  You wish Stanton and his crew had more faith in the audience, that they could trust us to discover this strange, new world with John Carter, but, alas, you will hear most of the movie’s key points before you experience them.

The really irritating thing is, when the characters aren’t gabbing about faux-profundities and ancient prophecies, John Carter satisfies as a solid-though-unspectacular summer blockbuster (think National Treasure, and you’re on the right track).  The action scenes are all terrific; Stanton brings some of his Pixar eye for composition and spatial geography to, most notably, Carter’s escape from the Union army, the giddy moment when Carter realizes his human physiotomy gives him near-super power on Mars, and a thrillingly staged battle between him and two giant white apes.  If nothing else, I think I enjoyed John Carter more than the similarly themed Avatar for its visceral thrills – as technologically impressive as James Cameron’s Academy Award-winning epic is, it goes nowhere slowly over the course of three hours.  At least John Carter moves in fits and starts, and it’s forty minutes shorter.

Plus, it has a handful of terrific performances.  Willem Dafoe gives real soul to his CGI-mocapped alien leader Tars Tarkas, and Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy bring some of their “Rome” chemistry to their small roles as, respectively, Dejah Thoris’ father and closest ally (Purefoy practically walks away with the movie in his big scene, a cheeky “hostage” situation with Carter).  Best of all is Lynn Collins, who brings Shakespearian gravitas to an otherwise rote female lead.  Dejah isn’t willing to sacrifice her independence – or her people’s – for the sake of a tenuous political alliance, and Collins makes her struggle more palpable that Carter’s moony wanderer routine.

All of these players outclass Young Master Kitsch, who – wonderful as he is on “Friday Night Lights” – isn’t a movie star yet.  He isn’t bad, and he actually gets looser and more natural as John Carter hums along.  But he looks awfully uncomfortable with the derring-do in the early goings; maybe, like Colin Farrell and George Clooney before him, he just needs to marinate in celebrity for a little longer.

Ultimately, Kitsch’s growing pains don’t cripple the movie the way they should.  You’d think that John Carter might suffer more from having an undercooked leading man, especially when Said Leading Man’s character is the title of the movie, but the picture just can’t get that worked up about him, or anything else.

Why, then, should we?

Disney’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack has no such issues on the A/V front: the image is clean and sharp and full of pleasing grain, and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is immersive and robust.

So are the features.  Disney has given fans in-depth supplements into the film’s making, from two solid behind-the-scenes featurettes (360 Degrees of John Carter, 100 Years in the Making), to some interesting deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Andrew Stanton), to the terrific audio commentary that details the whole shoot.  The only duds, for me, were the “Barsoom Bloopers” and the Second Screen feature, which I couldn’t get to work on my PDA.

Take a deep breath: John Carter isn’t a train wreck.  However, that might be more memorable; despite great action and some good performances, the film never rouses itself to become truly memorable.  One small consolation – it plays better on video than in theaters.

John Carter streets on June 5th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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