Well, I suppose if the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies made money, why not this?
Yes, I threw up in my mouth a little bit, thank you for asking.
Obviously, that title is very subjective, but even those who aren’t children looking forward to The Lone Ranger would have to admit that there is something quite off about the film. Maybe it’s just the way the trailers have been produced, but may I submit that there is something more. Perhaps it’s one of these reasons, or even all of them.
1. It’s a franchise that does not need to exist
Disney is in the market of making sequels (read: money). Why do you think we’re getting so many ones from Pixar? Because Disney bought Pixar several years ago. While Toy Story 3 was amazing, the world would have continued to spin without it. And while I have yet to see Monsters University, did we really need to potentially damage the magic of the original by stretching it out by ninety more minutes? Disney doesn’t care. They don’t believe in “less is more.” Their philosophy is “more is more.”
With The Lone Ranger, it has franchise potential written all over it. Not only is it from the team that gave us the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but it is basically Batman in the Old West, only with less gadgets and a whitewashed, Native American sidekick. The superhero movie trend has not yet died (not to say I personally want it to, as I thoroughly enjoy superheroes), so why not switch it up with, say, an adaptation of a classic TV show? Risky, sure, but so was Pirates.
However, The Lone Ranger is not a title familiar with the film version’s target audience. They’re trying to reach prepubescent boys who like to watch everything go boom, but that doesn’t mean they’ll watch just anything go boom. Take John Carter. Another aspiring franchise that buckled under the weight of its foreign-to-youth origins (it was also shitty, poorly done, a turd on celluloid, etc.). I’m not saying that filmmakers should only adapt stories from, say, the last twenty or so years; on the contrary, I prefer original fare to safe rehashings. But I still acknowledge the danger posed in taking an old property like The Lone Ranger and putting a youthful spin on it.
A lot of that danger comes from the idea those who were young when the series was in its prime are no longer young, and therefore, to add explosions and gravity-defying horse stunts that look cool in spite of the lack of realism goes against what made the originals so great. It was more lo-fi, more intimate. I mean, for crying out loud, the thing started out on radio—how lo-fi can you get?! The film is a transparent cash grab, brought on by the industry’s continued fear of anything new and addiction to material pre-existing and familiar. It may very well be a good film, but it doesn’t honor the work that sired it.
2. It’s trying to capitalize on a franchise that has waned sufficiently in the eyes of the public
Again, a subjective comment, but ask anyone in their twenties and they will likely tell you that the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were some of the most disappointing trips to the theater in recent memory. That’s because the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was like manna from Heaven for kids when it came out in 2003. Sure, it may have been based on a lame theme park ride, but the inventiveness of the story, the characters presented (Captain Jack m.f-ing Sparrow) and the action in context with the story made the thing a phenomenon. Not to mention, it was critically acclaimed, and netted Johnny Depp his first and long overdue Oscar nomination.
But then Disney not greedy, and fast tracked two back to back sequels. The reaction seemed to be a bunch of shrugs. Sure, the films made tons of dough, but that says nothing about the quality of the films. I’ll admit to enjoying both sequels quite a bit upon first viewing and adamantly defended them to my friends who were not as impressed. But upon second viewing, they came off as convoluted, full of action for the sake of action, bloated, dull and wholly unnecessary. The fact that a fourth film was even conceived still boggles my mind.
So when the first trailer for The Lone Ranger was released, the first thing that caught my attention (and this was intentional, I’m sure) was the front-and-center use of the Pirates logo, and the strong proclamation that this wild-west adventure was from the same folks behind that series. Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Johnny Depp, costume designer Penny Rose—the whole gang’s back together! But what everyone, Disney especially, has forgotten is that the love for this team has sufficiently cooled in the years since the first Pirates graced our screens. It’s always possible that lightning will strike twice; after all, who would have believed the first Pirates would have done as well as did and been as good as it was? But Ranger just comes off as a copycat, a cheap ploy, a desperate plea to make all of these guys even richer. Speaking of which…
3. It furthers the decay of Johnny Depp’s likability as an actor, and maybe even as a person
Johnny Depp was merely a cult figure before the Pirates films, taking on and performing roles with such audacity that you couldn’t help but watch in awe. He was a character actor with the good looks of a celebrity. Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Blow (my personal favorite role of his)…every role he took he made his own and created something iconic (give or take an Astronaut’s Wife), but still managed to stay behind the superstar line. For those that were in on the secret, he was ours.
So when Pirates began to make bank and Depp seemed to finally get the recognition he deserved, no one seemed to mind. He was ours, sure, but now we could share him with everybody. Now everyone knew how amazing he is. But then, something happened. The roles he chose seemed to take a turn. There were still the oddball/interesting roles that came in the wake of the Pirates success, like in Finding Neverland and Secret Window (that film, by the way, tried to capitalize on Depp’s new found fame in a way that came off as desperation, considering that it wasn’t that good, but still, interesting and challenging for Depp), but starting with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it seemed like ol’ Johnny wasn’t picking characters that interested him anymore. He would give them his all, no question, but the material wasn’t on par with everything that preceded it. It was as though Depp was buying into the public’s idea about him and following their lead. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter? Makes sense to me. Depp as a vampire? Oh, my God, yes, about damn time! Depp as John Dillinger along side Christian Bale? Sign me up! (For the record, I enjoyed Public Enemies, but feel it would have been better and more appreciated if it was made before Pirates instead of after.)
Now I don’t claim to know what goes on in Depp’s head (I’d surmise he isn’t entirely sure, either), and he certainly has kept a certain amount of credibility within his career, but choices like the Pirates sequels and Alice in Wonderland and The Tourist seem to justify the idea that he just doesn’t really give a shit anymore and is only picking roles that will either give him something to do, or, worse, get him more money (failed on that with The Torurist on both fronts—three-years-too-late-burn!). Every actor is entitled to make bad choices, and not all of these high-profile films have been terrible (Sweeney Todd was pretty good, and I heard good things about Rango, but have yet to check it out), and yet everything here seems more about bolstering his star. Case in point: Depp receives top-billing over Armie Hammer, who plays the goddamn Lone Ranger, the title character, the whole basis for this movie. The film isn’t called Tonto. Depp is a bigger star and this is not the first time this has happened in Hollywood, but the impression (maybe just my impression) of Depp up to this point was that he was modest. This could be just Disney’s decision, but come on, give Hammer some fucking due. Depp has some bright spots coming up, like Wally Pfister’s Transcendence and Into the Woods, but then there’s a fifth Pirates film, and, gulp, potentially an Alice sequel. My hope is that Depp returns to something smaller so he can remind himself why he does what he does and that he does it so well, but those days may be long behind us now, and Depp is more concerned with the maintenance of his island.
So there it is. My overblown rationale for why I think a film I never needed to waste any time thinking about looks like a waste of time in and of itself. If it does well, then great, good for all those involved and I hope everyone had a good time. If it bombs, then, well, I certainly won’t be surprised.
(Note: if by some miracle I do manage to get my screenwriting career up and running and I end up working for Disney in some capacity, I hereby renounce all these opinions and ask that they don’t kill me. You may begin your preemptive cries of “sell-out” at your leisure.)
There are sure to be a lot emotions running through your head when you see a critically panned film a week after it, by industry standards, bombed. There might be embarrassment, a questioning over your attendance in the first place. Expectations are bound to be low, so it’s going to take a lot to raise them up even a little, and there’s a hope that you’ll be surprised—it’s not as bad as everyone was saying and there is some redeeming value after all.
That was my attitude going into John Carter. I was holding onto some loyalty that Andrew Stanton, the director of two of my favorite movies of all time, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, would maintain some bit of his marvelous storytelling ability. I was nervous, though, because the trailers never wowed me, and then it wasn’t the box office bonanza Disney was hoping for (I think they’ll be fine in the long run). Still, I decided to give it a shot, and honestly, I don’t regret this decision one bit.
That doesn’t mean the movie’s good. Not. At. All.
Sitting there in the darkened theater, I was reminded of many, many other films. Cowboys & Aliens and Green Lantern were the most recent ones that came to mind (which didn’t bode well), and even Ace Venture: When Nature Calls popped into my head at one point. What I mean by this is that, even though the John Carter stories are more than a century old and preceded and inspired science-fiction greats like Star Wars and Avatar (a fact the trailers pushed so adamantly), those came to cinemas first. They are fresher in the public’s minds, and therefore, will be the basis of comparison out of pure habit. The goal then should be to transcend the elements of the original stories that went into the films we’ve already seen, and make those elements original, or at the very least interesting. I’d like to think that isn’t a difficult task; you just need to shirk cliché, put in a moment or two that will shock the audience and prevent yawns. Instead, what John Carter does is follow the modern sci-fi template and forfeit all logistical storytelling for big and bloated special effects and set pieces, and even a lot of those aren’t too impressive.
It also seems to be told from the audience’s point of view, or in any case, for our benefit. Call me simplistic, but I’d like to think a movie entitled John Carter should be told from John Carter’s point of view. It should open and close with him and follow him for the duration. If there needs to be a cut to see what other characters are doing, fine, but those characters should at least be introduced when Carter meets them, not through a seemingly random cut away from the main action just so the audience has a better understanding to what’s going on. The audience should learn things when Carter learns them. Nope. When he first lands on Mars and discovers gravity works differently and starts leaping all over the place, there’s a moment where he woos in excitement. But there are no shots of his face, of his glee, just wide establishing shots of the vast Martian wasteland where he’s jumping. I didn’t get to experience it with him. I didn’t get to feel it. When he meets Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), the green, four-armed alien that will become his ally (pretty much just because Tars is in awe of his skilled bouncing), there are subtitles to translate the strange language he speaks. But Carter doesn’t understand, so wouldn’t it be more effective if we’re just as confused as he is? It puts us in his shoes. It makes us care about him.
But the filmmakers aren’t concerned with that. Their goal is to create a new franchise, to launch us into a cool-looking, expensive world and hope people we’ll shovel out the bucks in hopes to see more. It doesn’t matter that the main character is as dull and empty of personality as Captain America because he has super powers and kicks ass (which, Hollywood needs to learn, does not make a captivating human being). Why should anyone care that said new action hero is played with as much gravitas as Keanu Reeves when Taylor Kitsch is hot and cut and brooding? There’s a word for movies like this: patronizing. Thankfully, judging after last weekend, it seems most of the country was as insulted as I was.
Rating: One and a half stars