By Brian Lafferty
March 13, 2012 (San Diego) – This year I (quietly) introduced a rating system. In short, the highest rating a movie can get is an A, a D- is the lowest rating a movie can get on the basis of being bad, and an F given to films that are not only unbearably bad, but immoral, base, incompetently shot, and beneath contempt.
John Carter teetered between a B- (the lowest rating for a recommended movie) and a C+. A C+ does not denote a bad movie; it usually means that the film contains one or several flaws that keep me from recommending it. For the best example, see my review of Chronicle.
In the end, I gave John Carter a C+. It isn’t a bad film; there are some good elements. But what didn’t work in the film far outweighed what did.
An adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, John Carter is about a jaded antihero in the 1860s West who finds himself transplanted to Mars. He reluctantly gets involved in a conflict between two warring tribes and falls for a Princess (Lynn Collins) seeking a way out of a forced marriage.
Cinematographer Daniel Mindel’s extreme wide shots of the vast Martian landscape are as breathtaking in scope as a great American western. He colors the deserts and the frame with the perfect shade of red. Not too obvious, but enough to differentiate between the Arizona deserts and Mars. By restraining himself, the parallels between the American West and the Martian West present themselves clearer. It’s not that much different than the conflicts between the Americans and the Indians during the American westward expansion.
To my disappointment, Disney foisted upon critics the 3D version. It isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly unnecessary. The deep focus shots are no deeper in 3D than in 2D. The 3D darkens the landscapes too much. Isn’t there any way a 3D film can be presented with clear glasses and a brighter projector?
In keeping with the story’s pulpy origins, the filmmakers take a minimalist approach to the special effects. The design of the Green Martians is ingenious. Rail-thin, claylike, and none too fancy, they blend in and interact with the human actors so seamlessly that at a certain point they no longer are viewed as CGI concoctions, but real “people.”
John Carter is Disneyfied pulp. The serial-style storytelling and the broad characterizations and plot simulate the stylistic tendencies of pulp fiction. Director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) tenders a “Disney Touch” to this pulp. It’s light and action-packed as a contemporary live-action Disney movie can be (not unlike Pirates of the Caribbean).
I had little idea of what was going on, but this pulp style engaged me…to a point. Stanton – who also co-wrote the script – takes what should have been a simple story and unnecessarily pads and convolutes it to the point of confusion and frustration. I experienced stretches of restlessness, mostly during the saggy, boring middle when it seemed little was being done to move the plot forward. At some moments I wished the film would end.
The too-long running time – it could have easily been told in an hour and a half instead of over two hours – and the botched screenplay are too much for the film to overcome. A little goes a long, long way.
John Carter is now playing in local theaters.
A Walt Disney release. Director: Andrew Stanton. Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon, based on the story “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Original Music: Michael Giacchino. Cinematography: Daniel Mindel. Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walter, and Daryl Sabara. 132 minutes. Rated PG-13.