War on Mars
Movie Review: "JOHN CARTER"
Published: Thursday, March 8, 2012
Updated: Saturday, March 10, 2012 14:03
The plot of "JOHN CARTER" is pretty simple: a confederate soldier, aimless after the end of the War and the loss of his wife, is transported to Mars. He finds two armies – one red and one blue – going to war while a tribe of four-armed natives stand to the side and pity their destructive ways. The parallels are pretty clear. Which is why it's so unfortunate that director Andrew Stanton (director of "FINDING NEMO" and "WALL*E") spends the vast majority of the film having his ‘characters' dole out exposition in endless monologues; explaining everything in such thorough detail that even sci-fi obsessives will struggle to keep everything straight. Everything Stanton does right – the pulpy moments, the wide-eyed wonder with which he shoots Mars, the hints at a subtext, the western iconography laid throughout – is rendered pointless by his obsessively over-plotted script, which is clearly more interested in setting up sequels than it is in developing character.
Considering Stanton's visual panache; the talky nature of the film is a huge disappointment. The first 30 minutes of "WALL*E" is a master craftsman at work – pure visual storytelling. He developed more character and mined more genuine emotion in that 30 minutes than he does in 137 minutes here, and he did it without a single word. The problem is that he doesn't trust himself to do it again – we open with a ponderous expository voiceover that tells you about a war between people you haven't met yet, and even once Carter gets to Mars ("Barsoom", as it's known to inhabitants) we're inundated from more plot-explanations from everyone – from his allies, his enemies, his comrades, and even his love interest. He'd rather explain than show.
And his characters are woefully empty, archetypes at best and completely bland at worst. I should note, Taylor Kitsch is surprisingly more than serviceable as Carter, never overplaying the Virginia accent nor getting too melodramatic in the heavy moments. Yet Stanton gives him no character to play with; he simply gets a ‘tragic past' backstory and is tossed into the plot from there. I came out of the film wondering, what do I know about this character? He was once married, he was a soldier, and, uh… he likes to jump.
And Lynn Collins, as the Princess of Mars whom Carter falls for, plays an even worse cliché. Their romance is laughable – Carter sees her from a distance, immediately starts massacring people on her behalf, and never once questions his morals in killing to protect her. Why? Not because he's a interestingly flawed character, Stanton doesn't explore that – it's simply because she's beautiful, and we're expected to believe Carter is willing to risk life and limb over and over again for a woman who he thought looked good from ‘across the street'. And of course, she's an excellently skilled swordfighter/scientist/political leader – but that's never explored, simply mentioned and then forgotten to make her seem less like a ‘damsel in distress'.
These silly flourishes, particularly the ‘eternal love at first sight' moment (or the way Stanton randomly has the aliens begin to converse in English over their native tongue and literally never explains it,) would have worked if he was able to pull off a pulpy tone; devoid of self-importance. But sadly, "FLASH GORDON" this is not – at well over two hours, it's far too laborious and unwieldy to feel like pulpy fun. And while certain sections do pull that tone off – the western opening, particularly – the rest is so self-serious and drowning in plot points that you're never able to have as much fun with it as you want to.
Take one scene of Carter (trailed by his alien-dog) going to war with the CGI natives, carving them up one-by-one in a display of his sword-fighting prowess. This should be fun, wondrous, visually exciting – but Stanton sets it to a maudlin score and intercuts the scene with a flashback of Carter burying his wife. It's another case of him limiting the film by taking himself too seriously; and both scenes would've been far more effective if presented separately. In fact, the entire western-style opening (about 20 minutes) is grand, trashy fun – I wish he had spent more time there, perhaps played this burial scene in full, and truly established Carter before he's transported to a 3-way intergalactic war.
This is a truly disappointing film; Stanton hints at interesting conceits throughout without ever accentuating them. A number of subtexts are nodded at – the idea of the war on Mars as a parallel of the Civil War, or the portrayal of Mars' desolate landscape as a symbol for the wanton environmental destruction done to our own planet – but he's far more interested in battles between airships or CGI aliens than he is in developing these ideas. We're just so overloaded with information (about the "Ninth Ray", about the tribes of Mars, about the all-powerful Godlike antagonists that I still don't understand, and on and on) that the battles just feel like another empty piece of mythology thrown at us for the sake of serving the series. Stanton gets lost in the material, unable to tell the difference between the pulpy and the overblown moments, or between important details and those he left in simply as service to the source material. Maybe he should go back to animation.