Sunday, June 10, 2012

John Carter: A Second Review

OK time to put this on the table.

Looking back at my original review I was a surprised I had given the film a rating of 3 and half stars as a stand alone film. Part of me wonders what was I thinking? I guess some of it had to be that I was trying to overlook the film's flaws and accentuate the positive aspects of it. The other part might have been that it was already getting torn to shreds by the critics, an indifferent audience and those "I told you so!" snarkmeisters like Nikki Finke and other Hollywood "insiders." At the same time I also gave it a two star rating as an adaptation. In my eyes then it had failed as a faithful version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. Yet over the intervening three months my opinions about the film has soured both as an adaptation and a stand alone film. Chalk it up to the poor box office, the feeling that had the film been better it would have done better or Andrew Stanton himself. It seemed each interview that I was beginning to see referenced on sites like The John Carter Files and others presented a man who, despite his constant claims of being a huge fan, not only wasn't but in some cases openly despised the material, even admitting he hated the character of John Carter, who he found to be a "vanilla" goody two shoes in Burroughs' novels. It had left me pretty much disappointed and sad that what should have been the film I had been dreaming about since I was 13 had reached this state.

So when I did buy the Blu-Ray I was determined to try to shut that out but also to take the advice of a friend and turn off my "ERBometer" as he called it and judge the film on its own merits. I watched it twice since then. I guess to be honest it did improve in some respects, some things were still excellent and well handled but it also still suffered from the things I hated when I first saw it.

So what did improve? Surprisingly Taylor Kitsch's performance. I had thought he did OK the first time around, mostly suffering from Stanton's decision to go with his "damaged goods" version of Carter which I had found just as cliched as Stanton does the "vanilla" hero version of Burroughs. I also had problems buying him in the opening. But once you get passed that he turns out he is a good fit for the role. There is some more subtle nuances than before-the brief smiles he gives Dejah in the Thark temple and his looking away when she catches him watching her during the trek to the River Iss. If this had been more played up, the charm and longing of a man looking for love it would have been more welcome.

I also found the pace much faster than I had during the theater experience. Maybe it was the cheap and awful 3D version I saw but this version seemed to move much faster. I also noticed more humor than the first time. What humor I had noticed seemed painful and just drawn out-the opening escape attempts from the Union outpost, the "Virginia" gag-but here there was more subtle humor that crept in from Carter's calling Dejah "professor" to Dejah's comical surrender to Sola.

As for what remained the same: Lynn Collins' excellent turn as Dejah, even showing more feisty quality than I had noticed before; Woola who won me over quickly and still does; the action sequences (except for the finale which I still find badly shot and edited) are amazing and managed in some cases to top most action films made today. I also found Michael Giacchino's score better than before. Originally I just thought it was an OK, John Williams-esque score but it comes across with more emotion and power than I before.

Unfortunately for everything this film does get right, there still seems to be something holding it back. I feel it comes down to a combination of both missed opportunities and bad screenwriting that for me does not make it the classic its defenders seem convinced it is. So I'll just let the cat out of the bag and admit that the two major problems are what I had noted in my earlier review: The Therns and John Carter's new "back story." I hated it when I first heard that the Therns were going to be added because I knew it would cause an overcrowded film, yet I understood the defense: it was to make it play better as that trilogy that Stanton was too busy working on. Sadly now it seems he should have spent more time woking on a good stand alone film instead of planning a franchise and left the Therns out since their roles in it are pretty much just useless. It also didn't help that Stanton rewrote Matai Shang into a walking collection of virtually every film villain of the last 30 years-from Ming the Merciless to Emperor Palpatine to even Dr. Evil (Shang's "let me tell you my evil scheme" scene might have worked better with unnecessarily slow dipping mechanisms) to even Mark Strong's Lord Blackwood from Sherlock Holmes. It just was dead weight that now will never pay off.

The other issue-and the biggest one, even more than the Therns-was Stanton's decision to go with his tired back story for Carter: the broken, damaged widower who doesn't want to get involved. The irony is that the "Galahad" version of Carter, the one Stanton so detested, would probably be more original and have stood out compared to movie heroes now. Ever since The Dark Knight the perception seems to be that every hero has to be a broken man with some tragic past. Now that might have worked if Stanton had done something more original with it. Instead it's a dead wife and kid-complete with a scene that a friend recently pointed out is a direct copy from Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales. The dead family idea was just worn out. Now I know many of the film's admirers love this, especially the sequence that intercuts Carter's slaughter of the Warhoons with him burying his family but to me it just felt like a cheap attempt to build empathy and in reality played no part in the story.

The other issue is this: the back story is usually the most boring part of the hero's life. We didn't need James Bond's back story in Dr. No, Indiana Jones' in Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Darth Vader's in Star Wars. The funny thing is that in several interviews and even his TED Talk from a few months back Stanton claims his favorite film of all time is David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia. Yet take a look at it: Lean opens with the funeral of TE Lawrence and then cuts to him as a British soldier in Cairo. No scenes of him growing up or where he came from or his family's history. Lean wisely knew this would be the part of the story the audience would have no interest in. Stanton should have followed the example.

So the question after all this has my opinion changed about it? I guess it has. Now I see it as a good film, a fun film but a film filled with missed opportunities. So my revised rating as a stand alone film is this: I'm giving it *** stars. The good stuff outweighs the bad stuff, even if it still annoys. As an adaptation of A Princess of Mars, well that's another matter and I might save that for another review. Let's just say this: I like "Vanilla" Carter. After all how many "vanilla" heroes do you know that slaughters a whole city just to rescue a woman he's fallen in love with? Oh well until next time folks.

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