Skip to main content

We can't have Earthmen projecting themselves over here, leaping about... causing all manner of disruption.

John Carter
(2012)

Most of the criticisms of Andrew Stanton's mega-budget folly are fair comment. It's a frustrating experience, as the failings clearly don't result from an indifference to the source material or the neutering influence of a nervous studio. John Carter has issues down the line from conception of storyline to casting, and you can only really level the blame at the door of its architect.


The problems with story and structure might seem less noticeable if Carter was played by someone exuding an ounce of charisma (perhaps venturing to ask for a pint, in a thin glass). 

After all, it worked for Gladiator (although, in fairness, that film had a very clear through-line for its main character that this one lacks). But Taylor Kitsch can only bring pretty-boy looks and freshly-toned abs to the game. I thought he made a decent showing as Gambit in Wolverine, but the best I can say for him here is that he's competent. If he just about gets away with pouting about the surface of Barsoom, he looks ridiculously anachronisitic in 1868. 


Stanton's managed to cast the rest of the film extremely well, which makes Kitsch even more of a disappointment. The problem for them is more one of limited characterisation and leaden dialogue. Lynne Collins (who was also in Wolverine) is much more impressive than her co-lead, while Samantha Morton and Willem Dafoe makes strong impressions as motion-captured Tharks. Thomas Hayden Church fares less well his one-note brute. Likewise, Dominic West doesn't get to do much more than snarl. James Purefoy is one of the few in the cast given a chance to inject a sense of fun into the proceedings; it's something of a Rome reunion, as Caesar to his Anthony, Ciaran Hinds, also lends support as does Polly Walker (as a Thark). The ubiquitous Mark Strong has a better role than as Sinestro in Green Lantern last year, and his scene explaining his role and manipulation of events to Carter is one of the best sequences in the film. But...


Like an awful lot here, he's not clearly defined. Perhaps the Therns are the same nebulous lot with god-like powers in the novels, but their motivation is nevertheless unsatisfying. They seem to do what they do just because they do and always have. They aren't evil so much as inscrutable puppet masters. Motivations elsewhere aren't strong enough to survive the number of narrative diversions that take place. Carter blandly hides a secret and vacillates over his allegiances, the Tharks threaten to kill Carter numerous times without ever going for it, the Princess is a shit-hot scientist/warrior but the writers are unable to have her explain the ninth ray clearly. 


So too, the effects for Carter's superhuman leaps are impressive but the logic of what he can do appears to change with the requirements of the scene he's in. One moment he can have seven bells beaten out of him, the next he's killing with a single punch, or dispatching a white ape with ease. And I can't say I bought into his ruse involving the medallion; wouldn't the Therns know whether there are/where there are medallions littered about the Earth? Perhaps such issues result from being surrounded by yes-men, or not listening to no-men. For a film that spends so much time on set-up and introductions, willing to grind to a halt at points to engage in verbose exposition, to lack clarity in respect of basic motivations and parameters suggests Stanton ultimately couldn't see the wood for the trees.


Stanton succeeds with the world-building and vistas, but he still mostly recalls other movie worlds, be it Dune or (even) The Chronicles of Riddick. Barsoom is full of sand; there's nothing very exotic about it. And while he mounts the action in a consistently entertaining manner, it's rarely enthralling. The one scene that ignites, Carter's single-handed take-down of an army of Tharks (again, the issue with his variable abilities), is somewhat punctured by the intercut flashbacks to the fate of his family. 


It's a shame this was a (relative) box office failure, as I'd like to see more science fiction/fantasy fare that has the confidence to take its audience to a fully envisioned new world. This one has more in common with a better-directed Krull than a new Star Wars, though. That said, Lucas would love the dog.


Popular posts from this blog

The minotaur isn’t even history. He’s mythology!

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) The long awaited, some might suggest past-its-sell-by-date, return of Ron Burgundy doesn’t begin well. It pretty much confirmed my fears this was a sequel with no reason to be, one that weakly rehash the gags and set-ups from the first movie. It isn’t until the gang gets back together that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay hit their groove, by which I mean there’s a higher hit than miss ratio to the jokes. Many of the ideas that come with the central concept are soft connects, but the more absurd The Legend Continues gets, the funnier it becomes, leading to a final act (if you can call it that) so glorious in its silliness that much of what fails before becomes virtually irrelevant. Anchorman 2 was on-again, off-again for quite some time before it finally got the green light, with a stage musical even considered at one point. It seemed to me to be messing with a good thing; the inspired lunacy of the first picture had already shown

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I’ve had enough of this 2012 Alamo bullshit.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) (SPOILERS) Not The Secret Private Military Contractors of Benghazi , as that might sound dubious in some way, and we wouldn’t anything to undermine their straight-shooting heroism. That, and interrogating the politics of the US presence in Libya, official and unofficial, and involvement in the downfall of Gaddafi (Adam Curtis provides some solid nuggets in his rather sprawling HyperNormalisation ), is the furthest thing from Michael Bay’s mind. Indeed, it’s a shame 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi bears the burden of being a tale based on (murky and disputed) facts, as it’s Bay’s most proficient piece of filmmaking in some time. So, you’re not going to find out what the CIA was actually up to in their Benghazi base (most likely, the dodgiest conclusion you can reach will be the right one). You’ll only be informed that a brave team of ex-military types were there to protect them, and stepped up to the plate, ju

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990) (SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall  (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “ They take these absurd stories and make them too serious ”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.