Sunday, 18 March 2012

Highbrow/Lowbrow: John Carter

John Carter
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins
12A, 132mins

Set in the late 1800s, John Carter (Kitsch), a veteran of the American Civil War, stumbles into a cave and is transported to the middle of another civil war on Mars, this time between the technologically advanced Redskins, with the tribal Tharks (green, four-armed ten foot tall aliens) stuck in the middle. The change in gravity gives Carter super-strength and agility, and he becomes a valuable war asset. Sadly, that’s about as intelligible as the plot gets. Fighting ensues.


John Carter is the most expensive B-movie you’ve already seen. I’m not kidding. The images and story hooks reminded me of Star Wars, Avatar and Stargate, and the movie feels like an old-school pulp action flick such as Sinbad or Conan. There is an obvious reason for this: the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from which the film was adapted, was written 100 years ago, and had a massive impact on the landscape of Sci-fi and Fantasy, and its influence can be observed through decades of books and films, including those mentioned above. For film history buffs, this is an important film and, overall, is a good film.

However, it suffers from problems. The otherwise simple plot is rather badly told. Too much information is thrown at the audience too often, and due to the abundance of strange alien names and poor plot structure, parts of the narrative are almost unintelligible.
Wait, that city walks? Who's attacking who now? What?? 

What about the characters? Collins is a revelation in the role of the Princess of Mars. She is one of the strongest female characters I have seen in a long time, because she actually has a character. She has some flaws: Given the option between marrying the evil Dominic West or letting him destroy her city she (rather selfishly) runs away! She lies to Carter, twice, in order to manipulate him! But we still route for her, because she is stubborn, driven by her strong motivations. Through making mistakes, recognising and accepting those mistakes, and growing from them, she experiences a genuine character arc, and is the best thing about this film.

Pictured: a dick "Come at me Bro!"
Unfortunately, Carter himself is one of the worst things about the film. Kitsch no pathos or energy to the role, and Carter is written as a stubborn, selfish idiot, who gets his companions into serious, life-threatening danger, without a thought, and who only starts to care about the conflict on Mars when he realizes that he is attracted to Collins. The fact that, at the end of the movie, he implores another character (one who is ostensibly a representation of the audience) to find a cause worth fighting for, is a rather hollow message considering his cause was, well, a desire to get laid. Carter is inherently unlikable.
It also leads to a darker element to the picture. Carter, given the opportunity to explore this strange new environment and culture, spends most of his time like a petulant child, more interested in getting back to his precious cave of gold. When he does decide to take a side, he bases his decision purely on which one has the prettier girl. It is also telling that Carter, a soldier, never thinks to try and find a diplomatic solution to the conflict on Mars. Nope, fighting is the only solution, and Carter is nothing more than a weapon to these people.

The movie also has little to say about the nature of war: for instance, this film could be used to ask to ask whether conflict is a natural phenomenon amongst societies, regardless of species or culture. It also misses an opportunity to draw a parallel between the conflict on Mars and those depicted at the beginning of the film, namely the American Civil War or the fighting between the US army and the Native Americans, and it is a missed opportunity to inform the audience about some interesting pieces of history.


This movie looks amazing. I love the design: the set, costume and monster designs are exquisite (the animation for the Tharks far exceeds the quality set by the Na’vi in Avatar) and Andrew Stanton (director of Pixar classics Finding Nemo and Wall-E) builds a vibrant, fascinating alien world.
"Hahaha, we're burning so much money that could go to charity..."

Parts of the movie are genuinely funny, with humour coming from the characters, but also from some of the performances. Dominic West and Mark Strong ham it up as the villains, James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston have fun with their cameos, and Willem Defoe puts in a brilliant voice performance as leader of the Tharks. As mentioned, Collins is a great actor, but is also smoking hot, and Kitsch has a very muscular body, so it’s no bad thing watching these two attractive people interact in skimpy outfits.
Oh.. oh my, I, er, have to cross my legs for a minute...

The action (the main draw of the film) was good, but could have been improved. While some of the set pieces are impressive, the fight scenes that seemed to have the most potential, namely Carter battling an army of Tharks and a one-to-one fight with a Thark leader, are wasted through, first, intercutting it with depressing images designed to give Carter a tragic back-story, and second, well, just cutting it very short and having no confidence in it. I have a feeling Stanton was worried by his inexperience of filming live-action action scenes, as most of the fight scenes towards the beginning of the movie were confusing and badly choreographed.


Here’s a rather petty complaint that has been nagging at me. The narrative of this film covers almost twenty years of Carter’s life, but, despite that 250 million dollar budget, they couldn’t spare any money to make him look a little older when it was appropriate?
John Carter. Age: anywhere between 20 and 45, apparently

It just strikes me as lazy and, perhaps, unconfident. That is what lets this movie down. Had the film just been about Collins or the fascinating Tharks, I would have loved this. Instead, it is barely satisfactory.

Rating: 2/5
Highbrow: 25% - 75% :Lowbrow

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