December 10, 2012

John Carter

John Carter deserved a better reception than it got, but this supposed box office bomb (it technically broke even in worldwide distribution) was very much hoist by its own petard on both the marketing and production sides.

The name, to start with. Besides providing no indication of the genre or indended audience, it's simply too generic. You mean, Get Carter? No, that's the movie with Michael Caine (remade by Sylvester Stallone). The Terminator? No, that's John Conner. There's a Carter in Person of Interest. What Carter are we talking about?

The proper title is: John Carter on Mars. What marketing genius thought that last part didn't matter?

Once the movie starts, the framing device turns into another example of the backstory getting in the way of the main narrative. The frame pays off in the end, but 130 minutes is too long to wait. I think writer/director Andrew Stanton got overly vested in working in a Burroughs reference to the detriment of the rest of the film.

The sad thing is, the John Carter on Mars part is perfectly fine space opera. Still a tad overcomplicated, and with an initially too-dour leading man, but with a great sense of place, inspiring vistas, and fun special effects.

Pixar veteran Stanton does a good job translating his animation skills (Finding Nemo) to the live-action (well, CGI) screen. John Carter really does capture the (safely-PG) pulp-era science fiction look and feel. His aliens are everything Jar Jar Binks should have been if George Lucas had a fraction of Andrew Stanton's talent.

Strangely enough, it's not that much of a reach to see John Carter capping off a weird trilogy: Dances with Wolves, Dances with Samurai, and now Dances with Aliens. But enough of 19th century cavalry officers and their white man's burden. John Carter should have been set in the present day. Call it A Marine on Mars.

Instead of getting chased by Indians in the Wild West, have John Carter get spirited away from Afghanistan while on a mission with Indiana Jonesy overtones.

There'd be no end to the great geeky fun they could have with NASA's recent string of successes, like fenced-in areas marked with signs that say: "Don't Disturb the Rovers." Parts stripped off the old Viking probes (the nuclear batteries should still be producing power). Using the Mars orbiters as a communications platform.

But mostly the problems with John Carter were brought on by too much "artistic" latitude and too few budgetary constraints. At half the cost and two-thirds the length, it would have been a deserved blockbuster.

Ridley Scott famously loathed the studio-mandated voice-over in Blade Runner, but it was a better film for it. I've never seen a "director's cut" that improved on the original. John Carter is what happens when the studio doesn't put its foot down and the "director's cut" ends up in the theaters.

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