Review: John Carter (2012)

John Carter posterJohn Carter is one of those films that you really, really want to like more than you actually do. For me, it should have been a slam dunk. It ticks so many of my boxes:  Retro-flavoured sci-fi? Check. Classic pulp literature source? Check. Beautiful alien vistas? Check. Supporting cast made up of reliable British stalwarts? Check. So why doesn’t the film click in the way that it should?

The blame must lie squarely with the director. Andrew Stanton has three outstanding directorial credits to his name, and they are all Pixar animations: A Bug’s LifeFinding Nemo and WALL·E.  As good as they are (and they are very very good), it is still an enormous leap from animation to live-action – doubly so when you’re working on a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Funnily enough, one of Stanton’s colleagues made exactly the same leap last December: Brad Bird (the genius behind RatatouilleThe Incredibles and the joyous The Iron Giant) branched out with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and delivered the most entertaining entry in the franchise yet. So evidently it is possible to make the transition.

But Stanton fumbles the narrative right from the off. Instead of easing the audience in to a world full of strange names and warring factions, we are dropped practically head first in to a mid-air battle. It’s pretty difficult to get a handle on who’s who and why they are fighting, and it makes very little sense. Then we’re suddenly catapulted to 1880s New York, where a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) has been summoned by his wealthy and eccentric uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) – it’s there he learns of Carter’s Martian escapades, and how he came to travel to the red planet in the first place.

I can see why Stanton wanted to cut through mountains of exposition in order to tease the action, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s jarring and disorientating, and feels like a desperate ploy. From New York it’s back to Mars and those strange names and factions, although the scenes where Carter adjusts to a world where he is able to leap tall buildings are quite fun.

I don’t buy the argument going round critical circles that the source material has been plundered and ripped off so many times down the years that there’s nothing left of interest to today’s audiences. True, the original Burroughs stories date back to 1912, and have heavily influenced genre milestones like Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Avatar. Certain plot points and scenes heavily recall films like Stargate and last year’s Cowboys and Aliens. But with the right script, cast and direction, anything is possible. There is plenty of potential on display in John Carter to justify the decision to adapt the stories. The problem is the way they’ve been adapted.

The story has been pared down to a basic series of chases, from A to B to C, occasionally pausing for some action. There’s very little time spent on shading the characters, which obviously creates problems when you’re not sure who’s on who’s side and does nothing to win the audience over. Some humour would have helped, but there’s none to be found. The central romance between Carter and Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) feels a bit forced. A cute dog-type creature goes a little way to adding family appeal, but not much. In short, it falls in to the common blockbuster trap of all spectacle, no heart.

The second big problem is the casting of the lead character. For Carter they needed someone who had charisma, panache, a bit of swagger. They needed a Harrison Ford; they got a Mark Hamill. No offence to Kitsch, I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke, but he’s a plank of wood as Carter. He looks the part but fails to convince as a man able to inspire an uprising; he barely seems credible as a disillusioned Confederate soldier.

The film is not a complete loss; far from it. The entire production is a thing of beauty – the photography, sets, costumes and special effects all look terrific. Beyond Kitsch, the rest of the cast more than hold their own. It’s always fun to see a good supporting cast in a sci-fi yarn like this; they give depth to the spectacle and help anchor the story, and actors like Mark Strong and James Purefoy do just that (though Dominic West simply stays in Ham mode). And the copious action on display is fun, if never thrilling.

John Carter is no flop. It’s not as good as it might have been and it has problems, but it’s still an entertaining two hours. It’s just a shame that, with so much going for it, it only emerges as OK.

[xrr rating=3/5]

At the Cinema: January 2010

New year, new decade, new resolution to keep the blog up to date. Starting from this month, I’ll be posting a monthly round-up of my trips to the cinema. As they will be very short reviews, it hardly seems worth publishing them separately, but hopefully once a month won’t be too arduous for anyone. I’ll also try and post initial reactions via Twitter, if you’re one of the twitterati.

Edge of Darkness (2010) 

Mel Gibson returns in this reasonable thriller from Casino Royale director Martin Campbell. Based on the classic 80s BBC TV series, Gibson stars as Thomas Craven, a Boston detective whose daughter is gunned down on his doorstep. Initially convinced he was the target, Craven soon begins to uncover a conspiracy involving his daughter’s employer, a company that has some secrets to hide. Gibson is on fine form in his first acting role in seven years. The plot is good, but has clearly been squeezed in to a much shorter running time than the original series, and suffers for it; a more measured pace would have paid greater dividends in some places. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here, particularly Ray Winstone as a mysterious agent with uncertain loyalties. 3/5

Daybreakers (2009)

Semi-intelligent stab at a different sort of vampire movie, where the world has been overrun by vampires and humans are now an endangered species. This poses all sorts of questions, not least of which is: what do vampires eat when human blood has run out? Some intriguing ideas are raised by Daybreakers, and the strong cast (including Sam Neill and Willen Dafoe) do their best, but alas the film squanders them through some dumb dialogue, uninvolving action and an unsatisfying ending. Nice try though. 3/5

Up in the Air (2009)

Delightful comedy-drama about a corporate gun-for-hire (George Clooney) who makes a living doing the one job no-one wants to do: laying off staff. Living almost permanently out of a suitcase as he flies across the States, his beloved self-imposed emotional exile is brought crashing down when his own job is suddenly under threat, at the same time meeting a woman (Vera Farmiga) who could well be his perfect companion. At times very funny, at others moving and thought-provoking, this is a winner on almost every count. Clooney is perfect as the high-flyer who comes back down to Earth with a jolt; very much a Cary Grant sort of role, and he gives the film much of its heart. Director Jason Reitman continues his swift ascent to the top flight of Hollywood directors following Juno with a characteristically quirky yet totally accessible parable of our times. 5/5

Avatar (2009)

‘Cowboys and Indians in space’ sums up James Cameron’s sci-fi action drama, as humans try to take over a mineral-rich moon from its indigenous population. Using genetically engineered ‘avatars’ (alien bodies controlled by humans), the company hopes to encourage the natives to leave – but one avatar begins to switch sides. A brilliantly realised production makes Avatar a must see, especially in 3D – the alien world is a marvel to look at. Cameron hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to the action either; plenty of edge-of-the-seat excitement here. If there’s one flaw, it’s the script. Cameron’s weakness is usually his writing, and there are a few duff lines; the plot also has been nicked from Dances with Wolves, spliced with scenes from FernGully. But these are minor flaws in what is a true spectacle. 4/5

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Solid dramatisation of John Lennon’s formative years, as he gets in to trouble at school, discovers why he lives with his aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) instead of his mum (Anne-Marie Duff), learns to play the guitar, and meets a bloke called Paul. Strong performances from a good cast, including newcomer Aaron Johnson, make this an engaging musical history lesson. 4/5