Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Carter (2012)

Title: John Carter (2012)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Colins, Willem Defoe, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton


John Carter is one of those films that spent a hell of a time making it to the big screen; yes my friends, this was one of those projects that was lost in development hell for years and years. Different directors took a stab at trying to get a John Carter of Mars film made without any success. The very first attempt at making a feature film out of the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories was way back in 1931 when an animated film actually went into pre-production. Unfortunately, that project never came to be. Had it come to fruition that John Carter animated feature would have been the first full length American animated film ever made, but alas, that glory would go to Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). Interesting thing is that some 60 years later, it’s Disney who finally got this film made! How did it turn out after all these years of preparation?

It’s obvious that a film of this magnitude was going to need a director skilled in the use of special effects. This film was to be a huge science fiction spectacle with alien beings, and spaceships and monsters. The whole film takes place in an alien world! This wasn’t going to be an easy film to make and whoever was going to helm it had to be someone who knew a thing or two about digital effects. Before John Carter finally arrived at the hands of director Andrew Stanton, the film passed through various directors’ hands, amongst them: Robert Rodriguez, John Favreau, Kerry Conran, and even John McTiernan. I’m sure all of these directors would have made an entirely different and possibly equally entertaining film, but the honor finally fell upon Andrew Stanton, the director behind films like Wall-E (2008), Finding Nemo (2003) and A Bugs Life (1998); which by the way, are all completely computer generated animated films.

It seems that studios are now handing visual effects heavy projects to directors who specialize in computer animation films. For example, last years Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) was directed by Brad Baird the director behind such animated hits as Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004). This idea of giving fx heavy films to directors who’ve specialized in computer animation makes sense when we take in consideration that most modern science fiction or fantasy films are now mostly made up of 75% computer animation. Just look at any modern sci-fi film and you’ll see most of the images on screen are entirely made up in a computer, I guess the Star Wars films are the best example of this. But such is the nature of the beast, and so this is a good idea in my book. The big worry is, will they pay as much attention to the storytelling and making a good/entertaining  film as they will to the visual effects?  How was John Carter?

The film starts out with John Carter, a soldier of the civil war who is magically transported to Mars where he finds himself in the middle of a war between two factions. The planet is being overrun by a despotic race who feeds off of the planet without thinking about the repercussions, this race only thinks about what it can take from the planet, but never about what it can do to protect it. So in comes John Carter who shows his worth to the people of Mars and suddenly finds himself leading the people into a revolution!

The film is visually dazzling; it’s epic in scope. The thing about films like John Carter (which by the way reportedly cost about 250 million dollars to make) is that they don’t come around that often and when they do, we hope to hell that all that money they spent making it was worth it. Ultimately, a film might have cost all those millions, but what we as an audience care about is if it’s a good film or not, if it speaks to us, if we can connect with it, if it entertains. John Carter to me succeeds in all these grounds. We can connect with its themes because yes, we live in a society that feeds off the planet without a care in the world for tomorrow or how our actions will affect future generations. Currently, I personally see humans as a cancer that’s spreading through this planet. All we do is take, take, take. Our society, our system is currently being run on pure greed and selfishness. The question is where will this course of action take us? What I like about films like John Carter is that they address these themes and issues, which means that we as a collective are aware of our behavior; the next step would be to actually do something about it which is what John Carter is all about, making that change happen. The idea being to stop a way of life, so that we can replace it with another that is more effective and positive for everyone; for the humans that live on the planet, and the planet itself. But of course, the powers that be don’t like that. They are making too much money the way things are now , and ultimately that’s all they care about.

The film is actually quite subversive in nature, similar to Disney’s own TRON: Legacy (2010), this is the story of a people who are being governed by selfish, greedy way of government. And same as TRON, this is the story of the beginnings of a revolution, and the birth of a revolutionary leader to lead the people. It’s interesting; this is a theme that’s been popping up in so many films recently. Hell even The Lorax (2012), a children’s film, comments on consumerism and governments that lie and abuse of its people. Obviously this is a subject matter that worries the modern artist, the modern filmmaker who often times fuctions as a siphon for societies worries. Art is a reflection of our collective worries, so it makes sense that these themes keep popping on films, it means these are the things that worry us the most right now and filmmakers are using their clout to speak up about it. I personally love the fact that Disney, such a powerful company is making films that are addressing these themes. Of course, films of this nature are immediately lambasted by conservative groups and lovers of capitalism. The media will immediately say that the film is anti-capitalist and anti-American and communist in nature. Hell, it happened with The Muppets (2011) which by the way, also happens to be a Disney film! So I think it’s safe to say that Disney is all gung-ho about sending out an anti-capitalist message to the masses, Disney after all has always been of a liberal mentality. I know, it’s kind of ironic that such a huge company, which embodies capitalism so perfectly, is putting out films that address these themes, but hey, at least they are using all that money to spread the idea of change. Things need to change, that’s really what John Carter is about.

Despite what some might lead you to believe, John Carter is an excellent film. It is an excellent production. Technically speaking, everything in John Carter screams perfection, it screams cutting edge, state of the art. The only real problem with the film is that it feels like way too many other films that came before it. The basic plot feels like a mix between Dune (1984), Various Star Wars films, Avatar (2009) and Dance with Wolves (1990). It’s that story about a guy who suddenly finds himself in the midst of a place he doesn’t belong, but eventually finds his way into the hearts of those whom he was once was an enemy to, and then he leads them to a revolution! I know, been there done that right? But I will say that John Carter does present us with enough new elements and moments to entertain anyways; even though we are treading on familiar territory. But damn, some scenes where so obviously completely swiped from previous films. One moment has John Carter riding on this bike/plane sort of thing which feels like the pod race from Star Wars: Episode I (1999). Honestly I was expecting John Carter to say “now this is pod racing!” Another scene that takes  place in a coliseum, in which Carter fights these giant white gorillas feels like a similar sequence from Star Wars: Episode II (2002). One scene has a princess talking straight at the camera, a scene straight out of David Lynch’s Dune (1984).

So yeah, John Carters only flaw is that it isn’t very original at times; but at other times it completely is. I loved that whole idea that he could jump such lengths! That was a really cool concept. Mars and the society of beings we meet there, that was interesting. I also liked the fact that same as Dune, this was the kind of film that touches upon many aspects of society. John Carter is about religion, politics, society and the way we live. So the positives in my book, out weight the negatives. This is a huge spectacle of a film and it shows. You see all that money up there on the screen, ultimately, I thought it was a very satisfying film and a very well made one, just don’t expect something entirely original. But otherwise? John Carter was a damn good time at the movies, lovers of sci-fi should be happy with this one.

Rating: 4 out of 5     



Jen said...

Hi Film Connoisseur! I agree 100%! I really enjoyed John Carter and I am sorry it got such a bad rap. Everyone I spoke to who as seen it felt the same way. I thought it was good old fashioned storytelling with great visual effects.

Franco Macabro said...

I dont understand the bad word of mouth honestly, its a very satasfying film with lots to say. I dont understand how John Carter can "bomb" at the box office, I mean, thats also yet to be seen, the film has a lot of countries to be released in before we can officially call it a turkey.

Here's hoping it makes it's money back, I'd love to see more of this world on the silver screen.

Betosky82 said...

I saw this and it was a lot better than I was expecting it to be. I think the reason it bombed is because the trailers are awful, they make the movie look like your typical shit blockbuster scifi/action movie ala prince of percia. There's actually a lot of deep story shit in this movie and it can get pretty dark for a pg-13. I enjoyed it a lot.

Anonymous said...

Disney revealed that the film was expected to lose as much as $200 million in the years second fiscal quarter ending March 31! The film released here 2 weeks ago but unfortunately it suffers from a lack of advertising. I just decided to watch it after reading your review because the only info i can find is some bad trailers.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree, I think this films down fall had a lot to do with the terrible marketing campaign surrounding it. I mean those posters are life less, the title change was a bad bad idea, I would have been more drawn to the film had they left the "of Mars" on it. Plus the trailers werent as exciting, I mean, it feels almost like they didnt want people to see it or something!

But whatever, the film stands on its own two feet, hopefully good word of mouth will help it make its money back, but with such dismall box office returns in the U.S., I doubt we'll see a sequel. Sadly.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I haven't seen the film, but the reason for its abysmal box office perfomance must surely have something to do with Disney's decision to employ a total unknown in the lead role. You just don't do that kind of thing with such a massive budgeted film. You know as well as I do Franco that the quality of a film has absolutely nothing to do with its box office performance. If that was the case then the original HITCHER with Rutger Hauer would be the most successful film ever made :-)

Franco Macabro said...

Totally agree, sometimes good films fail to connect with audiences for whatever the reason, other times, shitty films make all the profit. Transformers 2 comes to mind.

I think you are right too, they should have employed a better known actor, someone who would atract a crowd.

Problem is that nowadays, with the economy being the way it is and huge films like these becoming more and more scarce, studios dont like to invest in big name/big salary actors anymore...they save money by using new faces that cost less.

Still, this being such a huge production, I think it would have b een a smart move placing someone people were familiar with.

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

I’m somewhat relieved to read that you enjoyed John Carter almost as much as I did, Francisco!

You began your review with a nice background on how long this film has been in development hell. I can remember reading as early as the mid-80’s that artists like Michael Kaluta were hired to draw character studies and detailed costumes designs. I don’t think that the film could have been visualized as well as John Carter was until now, so in a way I’m glad it took this long to be filmed.

I really am tired of reading reviews of John Carter that start with “it cost a reported $250 million to make”, because as you say “a film might have cost all those millions, but what we as an audience care about is if it’s a good film or not.” I couldn’t agree more! I never judge a film on what it cost. A good story, well-shot and professionally acted are all that is required to make an entertaining film and if that is made for $1 million or $500 million it matters little to me.

I didn’t get that same message about societal or environmental changes that you got from John Carter. John Carter seemed much more motivated by his emotional response to seeing Dejah Thoris being physically attacked and then politically manipulated than any sense of the harm that the Red Martian cities’ civil war between Helium and Zodanga were causing. Mars/Barsoom is clearly established at the beginning of the film as being a dying world and the lack of resources is one of the primary motivators of the warring Red Barsoomians. To me, John Carter was portrayed as a fairly unpretentious man who saw a superior force being used to overpower and bully an inferior one and he was compelled by his personal morals to side with the disadvantage.

Here is where I’m more than a little surprised by your review of John Carter, as you make a similar assumption that many other film critics made, when you state: “The only real problem with the film is that it feels like way too many other films that came before it.” Not once in your review do you mention that John Carter is based on the novel “Princess of Mars” that was published in book form by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1917. If anything, all science fiction films like Dune, Star Wars or Avatar are guilty of plagiarizing from John Carter’s source material! Just because it took nearly 100 years for a film of the book to be made, doesn’t mean that it is derivative of other films that were clearly influenced by another medium. I read the Marvel Comic’s John Carter: Warlord of Mars comics in 1977 a month or two before the first Star Wars film was released and this led me to the novels. Unfortunately, Burroughs style was too baroque and romantic for me to slog through more than the first few books, but I did admire his imaginative vision and it is obvious to me that writers and filmmakers have been “borrowing” from Burroughs for decades!

I’m glad you recommend John Carter so highly, despite your caveat about its lack of originality, because John Carter was indeed “a damn good time at the movies.” It is already being considered a failure financially, so people who haven’t even seen it are also assuming it is a failure artistically – and that couldn’t be further from the truth! John Carter is entertaining in a way that good fantasy and sci-fi films should be: It shows interesting and relatable characters interacting in a fantastic and fully-realized imaginative setting. That’s something that many recent effects-generated blockbusters have tended to ignore and why I took so much pleasure from John Carter.

Sorry about the mini-rant, Francisco. Can you tell I really liked John Carter?

Unknown said...

Nice review! I am really curious to see this film. Visually it looks gorgeous and I like the source material. Too bad the film suffered from a muddled advertising campaign and features content that people have already seen ripped off countless times in other films. I got the feeling that this project was doomed from the start but it is interesting to see several positive reviews surfacing. I think some are going in with low expectations based on all the advanced naysayers and were pleasantly surprised that hey, the film didn't suck! I really should check this out before it disappears from theaters.

Anonymous said...

I haven't yet seen this movie, and honestly I wasn't planning on it until this review. I agree with a lot of the other comments here, in that the trailers make it look like lame by-the-numbers FX-travaganza--which I typically despise. And the mere notion of Disney-fying a piece of racy pulp fiction seemed a terrifying premise. Even the knowledge that it was co-scripted by Michael Chabon (one of my favorite authors) wasn't enough to make me interested. But I think you may have changed my mind.

Not enough to see it in the theaters, mind you. But I'll definitely give it a go when it hits DVD.


LLJ said...

If you read all the stories behind Disney's handling of the film, you would almost think they wanted it to fail. Seriously, they just about did everything they could to torpedo the film, even declaring it a massive failure before it even opened! (Not to mention booking the release date way before the summer months where it might have done better. If the film cost so much they could have at least tried to make it look like they wanted it to succeed)

What's worse is Disney making Andrew Stanton out to be the fall guy in this.

Unknown said...

as everyone else here has said, the promotions of this film did make it look like a shitty "prince of persia" type action film. Now I'll have to give it a fair viewing.

Franco Macabro said...

@Fritz: This is true, many artists, writers and directors helped John Carter become what it finally became, that is sometimes the benefit of being in development hell for so long, the project can feed off of ideas previous creative teams came up with, Im sure this happened here as well.

The film does have an environmental message Fritz, if I remember correctly, the Princess of Mars is trying to get a new source of energy for the planet, one that wont harm it, but the bad guys keep trying to tarnish her attempts at getting this new form of energy out into the world. Kind of the same way we could be using other forms of energy instead of having everything running on oil.

When I was talking about the similarities with other films I was referring to certain shots, and the over all look of a scene. I'm sure you must have noticed this as well! Didnt the pod race scene pop into your head during that whole chase sequence in the dessert? How about that shot of the Princess of Mars talking directly at the camera summarizing plot points? Didnt Princess Irulan talking at the camera in the opening sequences of Dune come to mind? And that coliseum sequence...color wise and situation wise...it looked a heck of a lot like Attack of the Clones.

But I'm not bashing on the film, to me the film was amazing man! I just had to point out those similarities because they were way to obvious. This was the only reason I didnt give the film a perfect 5. Still, I get what you say, Burroughs stories where highly influential, and I do mention him early on in the review.

It's true, many people are not seeing this movie because it is considered a financial failure. This to me is so stupid, but it once again shows the power of the media over peoples perceptions of things. Some people take as gospel whatever Yahoo or CNN tells them instead of finding out for themselves. Such a pity, they are missing out on an awesome movie and killing the opportunity of seeing more adventures of John Carters, this to me is a truly sad thing because this was a great film.

Thanks for commenting Fritz!

@J.D.: Do check out J.D., it is not a bad film in the least. It's got great effects and action, I dont get how some reviewers have gone as far as calling it boring?

@Johnny Metro: Hey Johnny, for a Disney flick I was surprised to see a decapitation if you can believe it!

@LLJ: Can't believe they are blaming the director, technically and story wise the film is good. It does seem to me like everyone was calling it a failure even before it hit theaters...and they keep saying it's only made 30 million when that is not at all true, the film has already made way more than that! For some reason, the media is nailing this one, could it be the films anti capitalist message? Hmmm...thats something to think about. The Disney guys cant forget that Stanton was behind Wall-E and Finding Nemo not only two huge money makers, but also Oscar winners!

@Andyman: Hope you enjoy it man, it even comments a bit on religion, I'm sure you'll find that interesting. They go a bit into how religions will teach the masses things that arent true, I of course dug that about it.

Thanks to everyone for their comments!

SFF said...

That is a great review Franco with loads of back drop on the industry and your assessment of John Carter leading to the hands of Andrew Stanton. It's all quite logical.

I also enjoyed your point about Disney and we probably disagree on many political points, and that's perfectly okay with me, but I think Disney and the industry in general is completely hypocritical. Like you, they are the perfect symbols of capitalism and money, yet do their best to tell everyone things should change. I agree the liberal message is indeed part of the industry yet they adore the almighty dollar.

Anyway, Carter does look great and it's a shame it's getting mixed reviews. It's almost divided straight down the middle. Because really it looks as epic as something on par with Lord Of The Rings.

Your review and a few others definitely confirm this is one to see and support even if it's supporting those dreadful capitalists Disney hates so much. :)

SFF said...

Just read all the comments and have to underscore what others have mentioned here. The trailers generally are NOT good. It looks kind of cheesy in the trailers. I think it has been poorly marketed.

I also really want o agree with you on those movie posters which are generally shite.

Stanton deserved much better support. I'm definitely going to suport the picture.

Franco Macabro said...

@The Sci-Fi Fanatic: Yeah, I hear you, Disney sending out an anti-capitalist message while they themselves are the epitome of that certainly is hypocritical.

Maybe they just send out this message and tell these kinds of stories because its what people want to hear? So they give it to them? Who knows...

I just saw the film a second time yesterday and enjoyed it even more because I managed to grasp the story even better. The message in the film is definetly one of change. The Princess of Mars is trying to implement a new form of energy, but the powers that be will have none of it so they sabotage, just so they can keep things the way they are. This film really is a very intelligent one.

Really saw nothing wrong with it save for the similarities with DUNE and Star Wars. But it's DUNE that it reminds me the most of, the THARKS are like the FREMEN, John CArter is like Paul Atreides, they even give Carter a new name "Dotar Sojat" just like Paul Atreides becomes "Mua Dib", Carter drinks a liquid that makes him go on a trip that reminded me of the spice and the Tharks want Carter to teach them how to jump the way he does so they can fight, same as Paul Atreides teaches the Fremen the 'Weirding Way'...the Tharks live in the dessert like the Fremen, they have their rituals, like the Fremen, they even have the right to defy the leader of the tribe just like the Fremen do!

Thanks for commenting Sci-Fi Fanatic!

Phantom of Pulp said...

Very well reasoned review.

The reaction to 'John Carter' and how it has been measured is, unfortunately, typical of current American ways of thinking: Because it didn't meet financial expectations, it's considered a bad movie.

On the other hand, when a crappy film makes money, the media falls all over themselves to find 'meaning' inside it.

Franco Macabro said...

Your talking about '21 Jump Street' right? I kid, I kid...thanks for commenting Phantom!


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