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