Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I Saw John Carter
July 5, 2012Posted by on
A few weeks ago while I was still on vacation, a friend rented John Carter from Netflix. Initially, I didn’t want to watch John Carter at all. The movie just didn’t interest me all that much. But I decided to check it out anyway, mostly to satiate my own curiosity in failed films. Upon watching, it was hard to ignore the fact that this film has a well-deserved reputation for being a gigantic box office bust. I spent my time watching John Carter wondering why exactly it failed, and I think I have hit on a few reasons. I’ve decided to compile those reasons here into this review, in an attempt to better understand and convey just why I think John Carter was such a failure. In doing this, I also want to point out what I liked about the film as well.
Theoretically, I should be extremely drawn to a movie like John Carter. It is, first and foremost, a science fiction adventure story in the vein of something like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or even any of the Indiana Jones movies. It has fantastical elements, exotic locations, super powered heroes, and other genre conventions that are normally very interesting to me and match my movie-watching tastes. John Carter, however, is shot and directed like it was made 60 years ago or something. Just watching the movie, I noted the bombastic, epic filmmaking, as if John Carter was Charlton Heston from Ben Hur or El Cid resurrected. The problem is that by now, this style of filmmaking is extremely dated. John Carter is considerably cheesy in many places, evoking filmmaking of old rather than 21st century blockbuster movie-making.
Acting in John Carter is a primary problem. I realize that Taylor Kitsch is well-liked in a few circles on the internet. His television program Friday Night Lights, while not a huge hit, was a critical darling with a fervent following on the internet reminiscent of shows like Community. But Taylor Kitsch is miscast here. His surfer-looking blonde hair and lack of charisma as an action star don’t help his case, and fail to endear the audience to Carter as a character. While it can be difficult to portray generic archetype Hero Protagonist in this type of film, Kitsch just doesn’t work, nor does he do himself any favors. He never appears to soak in the wonder around him, and is way too moody for the tone of the movie as a whole. The supporting cast isn’t much better. Mark Strong, who really needs to stop playing villains for a while, just seems kind of bored throughout, not that I can blame him in some cases. Dominic West and Lynn Collins, however, are both good in their supporting roles.
This is a problem that isn’t exactly the fault of the filmmakers per se, but remains an issue throughout the film nonetheless. The issue at hand is that no one in contemporary culture cares about John Carter. This may have been difficult for director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) to grasp. According to an expose by Vulture, Stanton steadfastly refused to acquiesce to marketing suggestions for the film, instead choosing to essentially market the movie his own way. What Stanton didn’t realize is that no one has the affinity anymore for the character that he has. Years of Avatar, Star Wars, and many other big budget action films have taken away from what John Carter did in novel form a hundred years ago. The marketing for this film was such a disaster that it reportedly led to the dismissal of the head of Disney’s movie marketing division. No one knew what to do with either the character of John Carter or his movie.
John Carter is an admirable movie in that its chief creative source, director Andrew Stanton, clearly felt an immeasurable love for the source material. Unfortunately for Stanton (as well as Disney), no amount of old-school style filmmaking, bad advertising, or feverous love for the character by the director was going to put audience’s butts in seats. Stanton, in the end, failed to realize that he had a no-win scenario on his hands. Not even a Super Bowl ad blitz, 3D post-conversion, or late effort Carter marketing blitz was going to save this movie. John Carter is long, has a meandering plot, is boring for many stretches, is considerably cheesy and hokey, and looks in places like that made-for-Syfy version of Dune from about ten years ago, despite the fact that it cost an absolute fortune to make. Even though I didn’t like the film, I still found it admirable filmmaking. I hope Stanton continues to get chances to make big budget movies, because he is clearly a director with passion. I just hope he learns his lesson from the failure of John Carter.