John Carter (2012) – Andrew Stanton’s magnificent folly
The maddest film of the year so far. Thanks to Showcase Cinema De Lux Derby for the screening.
(Andrew Stanton, 2012)
Beguiling and frustrating in equal measure. As I tweeted after seeing it, I don’t know if it’s good, bad or what the fuck it is.
I reserve a special category of my filmgoing experiences to ‘problem films,’ that rare breed of film that leaves me completely bamboozled. Usually, it’s the work of an auteur on an off-day, failing to fulfil the full bargain of a complete work of art but leaving such personality and atmosphere on the flawed finished product that I can’t help but be fascinating. Think of Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, Chaplin’s Limelight, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or the daddy of problem pictures, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Usually, blockbusters are more cut and dried. Either they’re good…or they’re not. But in John Carter, Andrew Stanton has fashioned something not seen since David Lynch’s Dune: a mainstream sci-fi epic by a visionary director that tramples all over the line between teeth-grindingly awful and startlingly distinctive.
Given the backstory, this film was always asking for trouble. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story is nearly a century old, and had defied attempts to bring it to the screen. So instead John Carter was siphoned off into Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Avatar, its plot beats and world-building becoming the building blocks of pulp sci-fi cinema. But then, buoyed by Avatar‘s world-beating success, Disney gave Pixar maestro Stanton a huge amount of money and creative freedom to square the circle and make the original.
And of course, what was original a century ago now looks like a Xerox. A portentous fictional history of tribes, princesses and shape-shifting villainous deities. Names devised on a Scrabble board in a fit of madness. A dated colonial premise of the white man going native to unite the factions against their common enemy… Stanton does nothing to hide these aspects of John Carter, and treats the material with heart-on-sleeve sincerity that makes this a creditable attempt at Old Boy’s adventure. But, of course, with CGI.
Stanton was always the simplest storyteller in the Pixar pack, and the innocence of this suits him as well as the set-piece designs of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol fitted Brad Bird like a magnetic glove. There’s an integrity to this that is unusual in a mega-budget tentpole movie. The accusations of cynicism that could be levelled at Avatar for being so packaged simply don’t apply here. Stanton simply rolls with the punches.
Inevitably, that makes it messy. Thinking in live-action requires a different approach to pacing, and Stanton can’t quite get the hang of it. Beginning the story proves difficult, with a voiceover prologue and a framing device used out of apparent indecision – and when Carter gets to Mars, the plot is a disjointed back-and-forth between camps, caves and cities. The confusion isn’t helped by the fact that one of the cities actually moves.
And yet, this has something. Stanton’s grasp of the unexpected turns a boring expositionary interrogation into a running gag, and he has the wit to rug-pull a heavily trailed combat with the swiftest dispatch this side of that poor swordsman in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. And the creature designs are disconcertingly odd, with Yeti-like “white apes” and the four-armed, tusked Trargs. In the biggest miracle of all, Stanton introduces a comedic sidekick monster dog and infuses it with Pixar-levels of affection and character: an anti-Jar Jar.
The humans, not so much. There’s just enough twinkling charisma in Taylor Kitsch’s performance to suggest why Stanton cast him, although frankly he’s not that interesting a character. Meanwhile, Mark Strong is in auto-pilot villain mode, Dominic West alarmingly hammy and Samantha Morton anonymous behind CGI. The most interesting performance, and emblematic of the film, is Lynn Collins as the love interest. Fair play to Stanton for casting an older woman than the usual humourless nymphettes who get these kind of roles, and Collins is clearly loving every minute of it. But there’s a weird inconsistency to her line readings, as if she’s struggling to calibrate between flat and OTT. Her presence symbolises the film’s ungraspable core.