Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon (Story “A Princess of Mars”: Edgar Rice Burroughs)
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
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Energy can never be created nor destroyed. The same could be said of a Hollywood star. Either you have what it takes or you don’t and no measure of good looks or sex appeal are going to change that. Yet, that doesn’t stop studios from trying. Whether it’s the trio of actors from the Twilight films, which were successful not because of their stars but in spite of them, or studios banking on a new name on the scene to bolster attendance through his sheer charisma, Disney clearly made a mistake banking so much on the likes of Taylor Kitsch.
Plucked from the questionably heartthrob-friendly The Covenant to star in the critically acclaimed NBC drama Friday Night Lights, Kitsch was first attached to Disney’s Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation of Princess of Mars to play the titular John Carter. He was then added to the cast of Battleship by Universal Pictures who may have gotten the idea that if Disney was confident in his abilities, they could be two. However, as both studios have discovered, banking on the commercially untested is a dangerous proposition.
Not that starring in a minor hit television series can’t do wonders for one’s career. Both Ryan Reynolds and Tom Hanks launched major Hollywood careers after their television debuts. Yet, neither were thrust into a major tentpole to start. Reynolds started mildly with the college comedy Van Wilder and Hanks got a huge boost with his praised debut in the comedy hit Splash. Both of these were small, low budget comedies. Putting so much cash into an untested name was not the best way to utilize him.
The other problem with the Kitsch forced-ascension was talent. Reynolds and Hanks had already displayed solid sense of comic timing and have proved to be talented actors in their own ways. Kitsch’s performance in John Carter is stiff, frustrating and far too modern for the likes of an 18th Century soldier.
Mistakently transported to the distant planet of Mars, Carter must get accustomed to the lower gravity, which gives him the ability to perform feats most of the citizens of Mars couldn’t, having been born and raised in the environment. Carter arrives in the middle of a huge conflict between two human-like civilizations with one, led by the perpetually glaring Mark Strong competing against the peaceful nation led by Ciaran Hinds and his beautiful, intelligent daughter played by Lynn Collins. Mix in an unusual batch of native CGI-crafted aliens voiced by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church and you have a movie that looks more like Avatar than it does a creative work of fiction written by Burroughs.
This unwieldy epic is further complicated by feeling far more animated than it should. This is thanks to the directorial efforts of Andrew Stanton. Stanton has more than proved his capabilities with the likes of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, but making the transition to live action feature wasn’t as easy for him as it was for fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird who did marvellous things with Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
Then again, it may not be entirely Stanton’s fault. Disney’s reputation as a family film production house has frequently led it to have a tight rein on its productions. Some of the more mature themes that could have been handled with John Carter aren’t things Disney is a fan of promoting and making the film accessible to wide audiences, as well as foreign markets where their tolerance for American drivel is higher. So, as much as I think Stanton could have done to improve the overall flow and tenor of the project, Disney’s controlling hand was a detriment to the project.
There is one element the film does better than many: the production design. The world of John Carter is gloriously colorful, avoiding many of the trappings of “red planet” syndrom, a situation where too much emphasis is put on the atmospheric tinges that color our view of the planet. While I would have expected a few more crimson tinges, the film’s beautiful settings and artistic designs make up for the missed expectations. Production designer Nathan Crowley has dressed scenes in rich textures, dark corridors and sumptuous details, but films like The Dark Knight, The Prestige and Public Enemies are more dingy, tonally bleak films that either built on existing motifs like the New York City Skyline or period eras. Here, he had a chance to explore his creative nature and developed some compelling vistas and inventive constructs. Were it not for his credible vision, the film would be instantly forgettable.
John Carter may be forgotten come Oscar time and it’s a shame. The film deserves consideration for Best Art Direction, but missing out on every other category would be entirely acceptable. The film’s dicely drafted characters, meandering plot and dreadful dialogue sink what should have been Stanton’s grand debut as a live-action filmmaker. The promise is there, but a better script, like one written for his old employers Pixar, would be a welcome step in the right direction and trying for something more intimate might also be a draw. A bad egg shouldn’t be the end of a career. A series of bad eggs though…well, we’ll just hope it doesn’t happen.
Potentials: Art Direction
June 20, 2012