Wednesday, 14 March 2012

John Carter; great planet to be a chain and padlock salesman

Seriously, I think that's my big take away from the first of the new galaxy spanning franchise which is probably not going to be doing any galaxy spanning anywhere near you. The people of Barsoom are ripe for the marketing of new and improved ways of managing chains. Their current methods are primitive and wasteful. The big green Martians spend damn nearly every other minute chaining someone to something, and then changing their minds about it, whereupon they smite the dickens out of the chains to break them, like it's not a thing. You just KNOW they're going to be interested in such innovations as the padlock, and other ways of easily fastening and unfastening costly chains without the need to be breaking them all the time.

You have time to think on these things when you're sitting on your own in the Hidden City fleapit. That, and wondering why it's in 3D, which is at least two more dimensions than some of the actors decided they needed.  The two romantic leads; well the guy's doing his best; the girl; gosh, I hope that's not her best. I hope she's got a whole bunch of other gears to fall back on. I have seen considerably more convincing performances in toothpaste commercials. I spent most of their screen time wishing they'd move over and let the real actors do some work. And when Mark Strong is getting a nod from me as a real actor, things are getting tricky. I was gobsmacked to check out the credits (on IMDB, I wasn't interested enough to sit through the actual credits) and see that in addition to Willem Dafoe wasting his time voicing an animated whatsit, Samantha Morton was slumming it as Willem Dafoe's daughter. Lord, I hope that paid you both well. Now, get back to some real work.

Everything you need to know about the writing and acting for this movie is summed up in the fact that James Purefoy, hardly the most subtle tool in the box, has the single best scene, where he tries to get John Carter to take part in a cunning ruse in order to escape about his ninth bout of captivity. Purefoy's most high profile role up to now was to play Mark Anthony as an able boor in Rome, and he punches past that baggage and effortlessly comes off as by far the smartest and subtlest person in the room. Given what else is in the room, he could have shown up as Mark Anthony and still carried it off, but kudos for making the most of the scene. Rather more high profile, but equally HBO royalty, Dominic West (aka Jimmy McNulty) is phoning it in by comparison; most of what he's doing could have been covered by a mop with a plastic bag saying "I'm a villain, I am" draped on top. He does get hideously schwacked, so at least he won't have to come back if they ever get round to making the sequel.

Which I think they probably won't. Although I've become accustomed to sitting in solitary splendor at the Hidden City fleapit, and don't read too much into it, box office performance elsewhere hasn't been setting the world alight. And Disney poured enough money into the thing; when they don't get it all back, they're going to be shuffling their feet a bit. As I watched the movie, I was vexed with how long it was taking to kick it into kick-ass mode; there's way too much time spent running around in the wild west before Carter ever gets to Mars, and since Carter's entire personality would fit on a 3x5 index card, it's not like they needed to take the time to set up character. I could have sworn, too, that the box canyon that Carter and a completely wasted Bryan Cranston ran into was the exact same location which held the misfiring climax of Cowboys and Aliens. It's only as I type this that I realize that all that stuff must have been comparatively cheap, and so they shot tons of it to hold down the overall cost of the special effects cluttering everything else up.

Some of the effects are pretty cool; the flying machines are wonderful, and I quite liked the walking city; I can see that effects library getting raided for the eventual and probably disappointing movies that get made out of theMortal Engines books. You can certainly see where all the money went. But the movie works best in the close in moments when actual performers deliver credible lines. I gather that the script tries to be faithful to Burroughs' original text and dialogue, which if true means that Burroughs comes second only to Fenimore Cooper in the ongoing "Who's the exact opposite of George V Higgins or Quentin Tarantino when it comes to writing dialogue people can say?" quiz that I've been running this last couple of decades. A lot of the dialogue - including almost everything the female lead needs to say - is jawdroppingly clunky. You'd need to be an amazing actor to sell it. Sadly, they decided to use the amazing actors for bit parts, and concentrate of special effects. Bad call.

All in all, it's pretty much Carter, the all too stoppable SFX machine.

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