“John Carter” Fulfills his Destiny…

…by failing abysmally. Yes, the terrible marketing for Disney’s would-be tent pole adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic series has resulted in an opening weekend gross that will be lucky to break $30 million, finishing behind The Lorax. Considering it cost about a quarter of a billion dollars to make and market (think about how much money that is—I’ll wait), this can’t be a very happy day for the folks at the Mouse.

Although apparently the people responsible (same ones behind Prince of Persia) aren’t with the studio anymore, so no one too important gets fired; they’ll just take the massive hit and dust themselves off. How encouraging.

As for the film itself? Like most Americans, I won’t be paying to see John Carter this weekend, but thanks to the USC School of Cinematic Arts I was privy to a screening last night. Sure, we weren’t able to hold onto any electronics during it, lest our iPhone-enabled piracy of the movie (projected in three dimensions, mind you) could have seriously endangered its box office potential, but it was free and a full two hours in advance, so who’s complaining?

Anyway, I found John Carter entertaining. It’s not good for more than a few choice scenes and there are a good deal of moments I’d say were really quite shit, but it was never bad without being charmingly naive at the same time.

It’s hard to hate a terrible moment if it’s really damn funny. Emerging as the clear favorite amongst my peers: “Go, damn you!” yells our protagonist at his goofy animal companion to spare it from the battle in which he’s about to partake (a bloodbath that trumps Anakin’s genocide against the sand people in terms of misdirected Aryan rage).

Personally, I’m partial to the cut back to the framing device in which the story’s being told, in which we see Juny from Spy Kids impossibly invested in the account of the film’s events as if to shout at the audience “ISN’T THIS ALL REALLY COMPELLING!”

No, but when you’re that adorably vulnerable about asking us, well, it’s tempting to shrug and nod.

There’s an argument to be made for taking into account that the original books inspired a hell of a lot of media over the past century—literally anything involving an ordinary person getting caught up in fantastic events that force him to become a hero. Naturally at this point the story feels derivative, and I don’t really know if that could have been avoided. There’s this wide-eyed enthusiasm about what a grand adventure we’re being shown, but inevitably we’ve been there and done that.

Unfortunately for John Carter, no one cares who does it first; they care who does it best. This movie doesn’t.

It’s not obviously bad though. The two leads were fine, although I mostly enjoyed the supporting cast, with Dominic West (the asshole from 300 to you, McNulty from The Wire to me) as a warlord, Mark Strong doing his villain schtick, Willem Dafoe making a second go-around in greenface, and Bryan Cranston, stopping by during what I imagine were a few of his lunch breaks to fill a perfunctory role for which he’s onscreen during minutes 10-15 of the run time. It was the best performance in the film (yes, really).

The visual design, too, was great, in particular the crystalline, blue, lattice technology. And the idea that John Carter is a hero essentially because he can jump (lower gravity on Mars, you see, so he’s stronger than everyone on the planet because his muscles have had to work harder his entire Earth life) isn’t as stupid as it might have been.

Still rather stupid, though. And the opening basically says “Shut up, there’s an atmosphere or something.” So no, they didn’t try too hard to update 1917 notions of the red planet.

Basically, if you can see John Carter for free with a lot of people who will laugh at it, by all means go ahead. Otherwise you’ve probably got better things you could be doing.

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