Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Disney John Carter Review

Disney’s ‘John Carter’, a production now on the infamous list of films synonymous with big budget commercial failures. Now obviously, not every financial failure is necessarily a bad film. Blade Runner for example took many years of home video sales to finally make a profit, having been initially crushed by the success of E.T in the cinema. Disney’s very own Fantasia took nearly 30 years and 5 cinematic runs to turn a profit.

When I first saw the trailer for ‘John Carter’ I thought it looked interesting, worth watching. The advanced word from reviews put me off going to the cinema however, as it did with most people. So 2 years after release and with the bizarre chance for a sequel upcoming, here I find myself watching it. Is ‘John Carter’ a lost classic, cruelly brought to its knees by confused critics? Or is it just a bad film that too much money was spent on?

‘John Carter’ follows the story of John Carter, surprisingly enough. John, an ex-confederate soldier, finds himself transported to Mars in the midst of a planet wide war. Having come from earth and earth’s gravity, John finds himself stronger on mars, faster and able to jump huge distances. Will John use these powers to help out those being victimised on Mars, or take the nearest teleporter straight back to earth?

Now if John Carter sounds like Superman that’s because he is him. Or to put it more accurately, he will one day become Superman. Once released in 1917, ‘A Princess of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the rest of the ‘Barsoom’ book series went on to ‘inspire’ comic books and films for years. This inspiration continues to this day, with James Cameron listing the series as an inspiration on Avatar. Burroughs is part of a very small list of authors who can be considered the primary creators of the science fiction genre. The above ninety three words of this paragraph is the exact reason that this film failed.

Everything in this film has been seen before in other films. I appreciate fully that the book they’ve been inspired by did these ideas first, but ‘John Carter’ can’t live in a vacuum where they don’t exist. By adapting this story you are putting it up against everything that took ideas from it. In some cases those rivals have had nearly one hundred years of time to perfect these very same ideas and improve upon them. If ‘John Carter’ had been adapted into a film in 1917 it would have had no competition. In 2012 it had to compete with ninety five years of science fiction story development. It had to compete with:

Metropolis (1927), Flash Gordon (1936), Buck Rogers (1939), Earth Vs the Flying Sauces (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009) to name but a few notable examples.

Even if ‘John Carter’ had been an amazingly well made film it would still have struggled to excite an audience, it had nothing new to show them. Without fresh ideas the only way it could have made an impact is if the film had handled these old ideas with fresh creativity. Unfortunately this put the director Andrew Stanton in direct competition with directors like James Cameron and the young George Lucas. It isn’t really Stanton’s fault that he failed to compete, it was almost cruel for Disney to let him try in the first place. That being said you would hope the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E might be able to bring something new to the table. 

This film’s biggest issue of all is its faithfulness to the original 1917 work. This faithfulness is evident from the opening line of the film:

“Mars, so you name it and think that you know it. The red planet, no air, no life but you do not know Mars. For its true name is Barsoom and it is not airless nor is it dead.”

Now in 1917, not much was known of Mars. In 2012, quite a lot was and still is. Mars doesn’t have air, nor does it have signs of an advanced culture having ever lived there. Now the majority of ‘John Carter’ is set in the earth year 1867. I appreciate that something terrible may have happened to Mars between 1867 and when we started to closely monitor the planet. I find this unlikely however as we would have seen some evidence of past life by now if that were the case. I appreciate that I am pulling apart a fictional world for not existing and that’s stupid. I’m doing it however, as this film is telling me that it does exist and that I’m stupid for not knowing about it. I don’t understand why the opening message of this film is aimed at a 1917 audience, they’re dead, entertain me.

The issues with this adaptation continue to rear their ugly head throughout the film. ‘John Carter’ is not really an adaptation in the strictest since. It adapts a book but very little adaptation of the book has been done to make the film. ‘John Carter’ is horribly stuffed with exposition and half-presented ideas. Even at a relatively long running time of 132 minutes, the film doesn’t have enough time to do the book justice. It feels like a solid hour of footage was cut out, an hour that might have made it make sense. Characters are inconsistent; ideas are introduced and never seen again. A proper adaptation would have taken the original idea and made it work as a film, cutting anything that stopped it from working in this medium.

These issues with the adaptation remind me very strongly of David Lynch’s ‘Dune’. The major difference is that David Lynch wasn’t trying to create a standard Hollywood narrative from the original material. ‘Dune’ still feels too short to do the story justice but the world feels fully realised. In watching ‘Dune’ you feel like a confused outsider watching events you don’t understand. You get the feeling however that the events do make sense to those living them. ‘Dune’ manages to capture the spirit and mood of the story, even if it doesn’t really sell the narrative of it very well.

Now this is really where the biggest issue is with ‘John Carter’, the world is not well realised. The compressed storytelling makes the world feel very small; everything feels very close and convenient. In addition the design of the world feels as if it had a single designer, a bored one at that. Different cultures should feel different and in ‘John Carter’ they really don’t. The two tribes of humanoid Martians are almost interchangeable in appearance and manner, despite being culturally opposite for a thousand years. The world just feels cold to me, the designs are boring and anything that isn’t required for the story doesn’t appear. We go from boring location A to boring location B and we never get a sense that anything is going on in the world in-between.

So the story isn’t very well told and the world isn’t very well created, what is good? Well the performances are reasonably good from the cast. Taylor Kitsch does a very good job of making John likable, as does Lynn Collins with Princess Dejah. They do a particularly good job considering how unlikable they are written to be. Willem Dafoe is very good as the chieftain Tars and Mark Strong is excellent as the villain Matai. Obviously the special effects are good but they should be with this amount of money going down the toilet. Even saying they’re good is somewhat of a criticism, they should be amazing. That being said with the level of competency the script and world design got, being just good is something to praise. One thing I can praise without reservations is the soundtrack, it's awesome. 

I don’t really get why this film exists. I don’t understand who would green light this; the odds would have been stacked against it from day one. This almost feels like the cinematic equivalent of licking food so that someone else can’t eat it. While watching ‘John Carter’ you almost feel like someone wanted to prove that this universe existed and was ripped off. To do this however they’ve produced a vanilla film, one that feels obsessed with keeping to the original source material at any cost. Without a modern feeling adaptation however, it all feels very antiquated. This world is interesting and has potential, it deserves an artist to get behind it and breathe life into it. 

Every reviewer mentions one scene in their reviews and how well it works. They mention it for the same reason I am. The reasons that scene works are why the rest of the film doesn’t work.

In the aforementioned scene John is fighting to his possible death at impossible odds to protect his friends. Intercutting this moment of emotional realism for the character, we see for the first time him discovering and burying his dead family in the past. This scene works brilliantly because it feels real, we feel what he feels. John’s loss of humanity when his family died is directly contrasted with him fighting for those who have helped him regain it again. The medium of film has been used to show this contrast in a way that the book couldn’t, it has been adapted.

This scene works really well but it is just one exciting scene in a very bland film. To call 'John Carter' bland is a bit unkind but as an overall experience it really doesn't do anything very new or exciting. It's an alright afternoon of your time but it would be hard to recommend to anyone who hasn't already seen a load of more interesting science fiction films. Somebody who just needs something new to watch.

I’m hopeful that more will be done with this license as with some care this could have been an amazing film. Some test footage is knocking about for when Paramount were trying to get this off the ground. The footage is directed by Kerry Conran, of ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’. Now ‘Sky Captain’ can be criticised for many reasons but it never felt cold or boring. Passion permeates every frame of that film and it does in this test footage for ‘John Carter’ also. Watch this and tell me you wouldn’t be interested in another visit to Mars and John Carter? I know I would.

No comments:

Post a Comment