Thursday, March 22, 2012

Was it THAT bad? - John Carter

By now, poor John Carter has suffered a real shellacking. The weekend it came out, the vultures pounced, with the New York Times publishing an especially unkind article that all but hung writer-director Andrew Stanton from a tree. Then it prompted a bunch of new "greatest flops ever" lists like this one and this one.

But did it really deserve all that fuss?

That's what this new column, "Was it THAT Bad?" will tackle. Periodically, I will review movies that get bad reputations of one kind or another, and will determine if they really deserved so much mud-slinging. Mind you, I won't take on movies that are obvious dreck like Jack and Jill, or most any movie with Adam Sandler, for that matter. I'm going to take on movies that look like they MIGHT be good - and if they are, I'll happily debunk the majority. If they're not, I'll join the choir.

When it comes to John Carter, I'm neither delighted nor irritated. I'm really more frustrated than anything else - not just with the movie itself, but with many reviews of it. Almost every one I read mentioned John Carter's $250 million price tag. Astronomical, to be sure, but I don't really care about that in a movie review.  I think too many critics reviewed the budget more than they did what was up there on the screen. That, in the end, is, was, and always will be, the most important factor.

I hadn't been all that interested in John Carter (the notoriously muddled ad campaign didn't help) but after writers horse-whipped it, I wanted to try to review the movie honestly. What I saw on screen was a sometimes imaginative, sometimes thrilling sci-fi adventure, that alas, was rarely focused.

I had been rooting for Stanton to succeed in live action, just like his Pixar compatriot Brad Bird did with the terrific Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.  But Bird had the advantage of working with an existing template and putting his own spin on it, just as all the MI directors had done. Stanton had to start more or less from the ground up, and he bit off more than he could chew. The movie  looks great, and the actors are game, but the bottom lime is this: Stanton was  in love with the John Carter stories - so much so that he couldn't bear to cut sections he should have. The movie starts with too many beginnings, has a fairly decent middle section, and ends with too many endings.

It felt to me like Stanton got too caught up in trying to tackle all his favorite things. It's as if he were saying "Oh wow! I get to make an Indiana Jones movie! And a Star Wars movie! And a Tarzan movie! A Civil War epic, even! I have to include it ALL!"

And so he did. The beginning, in particular is a jumbled mess that folds back on itself at least twice, and the movie lost me within the first 20 minutes - always a fatal error. Then the movie settled down with a mid-section I kind of liked - then Stanton piled on ending after ending after ending, to the point that he made the endings of Return of the King look like a model of restraint.

Someone once told the Beatles that they should start their act like a W - you start strong, dip a little, rise again, then fall again, but come back for a great finish. That way, even if you do have dips in the mid-section, the audience will stay with you.

Unfortunately Stanton made his movie more like an M - he starts slow, builds a little, falls again, then builds a little more, but finally falls flat in the end, leaving me disappointed.   It may have been too much too expect that John Carter would be as good as Stanton's Pixar hits, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. But it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Heaven's Gate or Battlefield Earth.

Is John Carter that bad? No, but the problem is, it's not that good either.



Allison Dickson said...

I think your limited praise is somewhat more damning than the people piling on the EPIC FAIL pile, because you actually TRIED to like it, and you give most movies a fairer shot than most. I still don't know if I'll see this. I hate movies with the sort of plot structure you just described, and it sounds exhausting just watching it.

Scott Copeland said...

The movie never had a chance. The big mistake wasn't really in the NY Times article. The big mistake was acting like this was a beloved character that everyone wanted to see in a movie, like Superman or Gandalf. Most people didn't know who the hell John Carter was, so there was no pull to see the movie. Why the marketing never said "From the creator of Tarzan" is beyond me. Or "From the director of Finding Nemo". Instead, the ads had "From the studio the brought you Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland" which is meaningless. It didn't matter how good the film was. No one ever got excited to see it. My 12 year old son should have been the target audience. He didn't go.