Is John Carter a welcomed new franchise, or doomed to the bargain bin at Walmart?
With the exception of the Marvel franchise, most franchises of late have been exercises in disappointment. I’ll spare you the cavalcade of doomed attempts, but it’s clear that Hollywood is trying almost anything these days to get bums in seats. It’s in this spirit of desperation that someone must have thought John Carter might work, given its myriad of issues. Forget the fact that the target audience for this film knows more about Harry Potter and The Lightning Thief than a former Confederate soldier in post-Civil War America who is transported to Mars to fight another civil war on that dying planet. Also, forget that the main actors (Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch) last starred together in the equally disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And forget that Disney is involved, who is known to make the fabulous (Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest), and the awful (Pirates: XX) in one franchise. Even when recognizing these limitations and bringing in very limited expectations to the theatre, along with one Super Bowl commercial as my guide, John Carter failed to inspire.
The problems with the story are simple, as they are with most failed action franchises: too many clichés, too little character development, and the insistence on adding the token cutsey character to appeal to small children. My aversion to these pitfalls, particularly the latter, drives me batty about Hollywood. In this case, it’s a large, slobbering, alien dog which can run very fast but most of the time just tries to look cute and…slobbery. In the end, the dog looks more like an earth animal than something which could survive on a dying planet, and we’re forced to wonder why they the writer didn’t actually write a real dog into the script.
Hollywood seems stuck on the premise that its movies must have this George Lucas element built in to appeal to the widest audience, but it only serves to less the story’s impact. And it’s the script, which was taken from a classic novel by Edgar Rice Boroughs, that forms the center of my dismay. Riddled with plot holes about immortal priests that’s never fully explained, a civil war which we care little about, and character interaction that’s made more for hour-long drama than silver-screen material, John Carter feels rushed in places and runs at a snail’s pace in others.
Take our main characters as an example of that pacing problem: Kitsch and Collins look good in the film (simply put, Collins is hot), but it’s their lack of chemistry and dramatic chops which keeps us from truly caring about them. While it’s clear that both will have successful movie careers as supporting actors, they simply lack the stage presence to keep audiences entertained beyond those good looks. It’s made all the more apparent when watching scenes played by the poorly-developed priest (played by Mark Strong), who gravitas simply out-acts our heroes in every scene. Even the voice talents of Willem Dafoe (White Sands) and Thomas Haden Church (Spider-man 3) as 12 foot Martian barbarians are wasted here, because the screenplay chooses form over function. Dafoe is top shelf in most efforts, but neither can he, Strong, or Church overcome this bad screenplay. Its 132-minute run time left many at our screening at wonder if it would ever end.
Even the CGI, which can usually help to prop up a weak script or provided needed bridges in certain parts, is dull, unimaginative, and downright terrible in any scene involving Carter jumping. Just because Mars has less gravity doesn’t mean a character from Earth can jump 200 feet into the air without leaving Mars’ atmosphere. But logic isn’t the only problem with the CGI: those scenes actually looked blurry and simply unfinished, leaving me to wonder how a film with a $300 million budget could drop the ball on something as simple as jumping.
I never read John Carter as a kid, but its premise is probably as hard to fathom as an Iron Man or Thor. The reason why those heroes worked as movies is the same reason why John Carter fails on the big screen. An incomprehensible screenplay, fair CGI, and poor casting make this a re-shuffle for part 2 in the least and a total re-cast/reboot at the most. Hollywood shouldn’t seem too surprised; if it’s demonstrated one thing lately is its ability to hit the reboot button early and often.
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