Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The high cost of Martian living”

Posted on March 16, 2012

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Inside a plodding sci-fi extravaganza that has morphed from a mere film into a financial cautionary tale.

So much vitriol has been spewed on John Carter that I feel compelled to point out something nice – like the fact that it is certainly better than last year’s Cowboys & Aliens. This isn’t faint praise. In an early scene, the titular hero (played by Taylor Kitsch, whose unfortunate last name portends a career filled with films no one is going to take seriously), a Civil War veteran, is seen galloping away from a squad of irate Indians framed against a breathtaking backdrop that evokes the Monument Valley settings of John Ford’s Westerns, those spare stretches of stone and sand that assume almost spiritual proportions in their vastness, in their loneliness, in their silent all-knowing-ness. The stirring sweep of this all-too-brief action sequence made me wish that Andrew Stanton – this film’s director, also responsible for Finding Nemo and WALL-E – had made Cowboys & Aliens, which would have given him the opportunity to stage the kind of story he appears most attuned to: a cowboy saga beset by aliens.

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Unfortunately, John Carter is an aliens saga populated by a solitary cowboy. I realise that Stanton isn’t to blame for this. The plot was hatched, almost a century ago, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and other filmmakers have appropriated its tropes during the long period of incubation that led to this faithful (perhaps too faithful) screen version. As a result, what must have seemed, at some point, a singular work of vision, now resembles a second-rate rip-off of Star Wars (everything from a feisty princess in bondage-wear to non-human characters that look and sound, tragically, like Jar Jar Binks) and Avatar (able-bodied white man helps hapless natives reclaim their nation). George Lucas fans, especially, may find themselves witnessing a retrospective of recycled memories – from a sort-of pod race to a dust-brown planet whose skies are home to twin celestial bodies; from a mystical religion like the Force to a gladiatorial combat in an arena against snarling creatures that look like six-limbed Wampas, those white and woolly inhabitants of the ice planet Hoth.

What, I wonder, could any director do to fend off the stench of mothballs in this material? And with all the web-chatter about the budget (a reported $350 million, including marketing) and how much the film needs to earn in order to break even (some $600 million), it’s impossible not to be confounded by studios that sign off on pricey projects like John Carter, which are not based on popular franchises or a character more alive in public memory, whose story needs substantial setting up. (The deadly earnest opening voiceover, droning on about Zodanga and Barsoom and a Helium that is clearly not a component of the periodic table, lulled me into a stupor from which I never really recovered.) Did they assure themselves that hiring Stanton, who has behind him two huge worldwide hits, was enough, and that he would somehow transform pulp into gold? Or was “worldwide” the key factor, the fact that any film, these days, with fantasy and special-effects action (and made in 3-D) is predestined to become a global blockbuster?

John Carter left me with the impression that Stanton’s interests lay not in spectacle but in languid stretches like the one where the protagonist, thanks to a body realigned by a new planet’s gravitational pull, learns to “walk” on Barsoom (Mars to you and me). It’s a piece of witty choreography that transported me to WALL-E’s interstellar waltz, and I had this vision of Stanton strapped to a runaway (and very expensive) chariot, looking back, with a wistful sigh, at sights like these he would have liked to stop and savour. Big-budget filmmaking has neither time nor temperament to wallow in these little whimsies, not when there’s the next generic action sequence to get to (inflated by commensurately generic music). Yet, scene for scene, Stanton seems to be striving for more than just a cartoon-strip action-adventure, which may explain why he refuses to fully embrace his story’s pulp roots. A cool shape-shifting man (at least he looks like a man) given to gnostic quips is about the only character in tune with his inner cheese. The film, otherwise, is mostly a waste of bread.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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