Imagine you’re at a picnic, and you have a paper plate. Not the rigid kind, but the flimsy kind where you have to double up, or it won’t be strong enough, only you didn’t double up, so you just have one. When you get to the head of the line, you’re served a large dollop of oatmealy, sick person’s poop, and then another dollop. Right onto the paper plate. Two servings is too much for the plate. Being paper, it buckles under the pressure and the moisture. Still, the soup spoon keeps serving—three, four, five, six—and the slop piles high. The soup spoon starts to bend and your paper plate begins to disintegrate. Eventually you back away and, in this bad dream, you have to somehow maneuver the paper plate, without spilling it, through a cramped room packed with psychotic monkeys. But, of course, you spill it. Right down your front. Now you’re covered in shit.
That’s Disney’s John Carter in a nutshell. It would be one thing if this was just your run-of-the-mill boring studio dreck, a show-reel of expensive CGI that feels more like sitting through a mandatory meeting of the shareholders than a good time at the pictures. No, it’s worse—not just boring, but ugly, ungainly, and nonsensical. It’s both abrupt and languorous, a wall-to-wall exhibition of design work where nobody had the basic decency to make sure the designs were good. As the guy in line behind Alvy Singer in Annie Hall might say, “It lacks a cohesive structure.”
The director is Andrew Stanton, whose Wall-E was the toast of 2008, for cinephiles and civilians alike. Prior to that, he helmed Finding Nemo, which, while it was as exhaustingly clever as all of Pixar’s second-rate features, it gave no indication that he was, shall we say, “a director of note.” Stanton is completely the wrong guy for John Carter, but as James Cameron has demonstrated many times throughout his career, it’s very easy for things to go very, very wrong if a director can’t produce coherent action, sketch interesting characters (provided he was given memorable faces to begin with), or, if all else fails, foment a quiet rebellion against the soul-killing dross he’s been handed. Many a lousy film has been, if not redeemed, at least moderately salvaged, by the sometimes clandestine, sometimes overt infiltration of personality into seemingly uncooperative content. As film theorist Siegfried Kracauer once wrote, to paraphrase, art often blooms in the most hostile soil. No such luck here.
A plot synopsis for John Carter would so thoroughly resemble Avatar that it might be easier to point out what’s different, which isn’t much. Civil War veteran John Carter (Kitsch) gets transported to Mars, thanks to something about some lost gold and a cave and a mysterious bald guy. Oh, but before that there’s a massive special-effects sequence where Jimmy McNulty from The Wire is gifted a vaporizing ray by three bald guys. One of the bald guys is played by Mark Strong, who in spite of typecasting is allowed to be the terrific actor he is, due in part to the fact that his massive, dead-giveaway-that-this-is-a-massive-turkey costume is far and away the least ridiculous one in the film.
Back at the ranch, Carter shacks up with the
Na’vi Tharks, a race of 15-foot-tall, four-armed warrior creatures. Carter is treated like a funny freak at first, then gradually earns their respect, even after an epic battle scene in which he (impossibly, as he is, at first, pushed around like an AV club kid and thrown in the hoosegow) dispatches about 200 of their elite warriors. You might think, given the film’s strong resemblance to Cameron’s 2009 mega-blockbuster, that Carter is going to get extra-freaky-terrestrial with the one lady Thark who emerges from the noisy crowd and who speaks with Samantha Morton’s voice. Thankfully, a hot human(oid) is quick to arrive on the scene, played by True Blood’s Lynn Collins, so there’s no kinky ponytail intercourse.
Don’t get me wrong. Stanton isn’t a nothing director. The wonderful Wall-E wasn’t happenstance. Although, to quote something Humphrey Bogart once said to Elisha Cook Jr. in The Big Sleep, this movie is too big for him, he’s operating on some way-down level. He has no apparent eye for action, and no talent for alternating CGI world-building with “live” (if the word still carries any meaning) footage. But he’s a humorist, and every now and again, by and by, a hairline crack of visual wit wafts through a few frames, almost at a subliminal level. It’s a small thing, not enough to carry an entire film, but it’s something.