Published on March 14th, 2012 | by Jordan Petersen0
John Carter: The Anti-Review
I did not see John Carter this last weekend. I could have. In fact, I planned to, all the way up to the day before. I had female accompaniment lined up, a theater and even a showtime. So, what happened?
The problem was that, deep down, I didn’t want to see it. This sentiment, when I had fully uncovered it, surprised and saddened me. You see, I had been following the making of this film for years. Back at BYU, we heard rumors that some of the Pixar people were getting involved with a “John Carter of Mars” adaptation, and that some of it was going to be filmed in Utah.
This isn’t to say that I followed the project very closely, but my ears would perk up whenever I heard anything about it, and I would get a little excited. After all, the Pixar brand was (and, for the most part, still is) solid gold. And I’m all about sci-fi/fantasy/action epics. I recognize that most of them suck, but I always hope. I’m like a child, that way.
This hope and anticipation was somewhat buttressed by the first images that found their way onto the Internet. “How beautiful!” cried all the fanboys, my voice among them. Even the teaser, which sure took its sweet time getting released, kept that fire burning.
But, somewhere between the first glimpses of the film and the subsequent trailers and promotional material, it became clear that this would quite likely be no different from any number of bloated fantasy epics. In other words, it seemed doomed to be flashy, loud, dumb and forgettable. The characters would be flat, as would be the acting. The story would be, by turns, convoluted and painfully obvious. And it would all be delivered in full 3D, which is, I’m aware, not a fair argument against the film but — and for this I apologize to my more tech-savvy and optimistic friends — 3D is still a mark of trashiness.
I have some theories about why potentially wonderful films get turned into insubstantial popcorn movies for the masses (though the so-called masses have proven, time and again, that they are capable of appreciating more substantive fare). The problem is expense. Studio executives are idiots, by and large. Oh, they’re savvy businessmen, and they understand market research and industry conventions. They know names and they’re really good at moving money. Please understand that I am not devaluing those skills. These guys are the reason $200 million dollar movies get made, and that’s pretty rockin’.
But when it comes to art and storytelling, they are basically equivalent to a classroom of third-graders. In their hands, stories become clichéd and obtuse. Resonance and lasting merit are so far outside of the scope of their abilities that once they start really meddling, the case is hopeless. So, it comes back to expense. The more expensive a film is, the more nervous the execs get. And the more nervous they get, the more they meddle. And the more they meddle, the worse the script gets. And as the script gets progressively crappier, the writers in charge of “fixing it” become progressively less artistically invested, and the process of rewriting basically defaults on proven formulas and clichés. Because they are safe — and that’s what the executives want. There’s too much money on the line to take “risks.”
Ultimately, all that’s left is … well, go see the movie, I guess. Pretty much all of the critics are saying the same thing: “It’s fun! It’s dumb!”
Sometimes there’s a breakout film. This happens when the executives see a sure bet in terms of marketing, and so they let the writers and directors do what they want. The best example is, of course, The Dark Knight. And this is why I remain adamantly convinced that the third installment in that particular franchise will be absolutely wonderful.
But John Carter wasn’t a sure bet. In fact, it was a staggering risk, and so the studio executives surely applied their particular artistic talents to ensure that nothing of any real weight or substance survived all the way into the shooting script. Thus, the film succumbs to one of the fundamental laws of filmmaking: you can make a bad movie out of a great script, but you can’t make a great movie out of a bad script.
So I didn’t see it. I decided I’d rather spend my time and money on a film that had something more to offer than special effects and noise. Luckily, the lovely girl with whom I had made plans to see the sure bet disappointment was accommodating and kind. It turns out she didn’t really want to see John Carter anyway. We went and saw The Artist instead. More on that next week. ♦ ♦ ♦
Jordan Petersen is SOUND’s resident sensei of all things movie-related. Recently graduated from Brigham Young University, he is now working towards a Master’s degree in film at Boston University. Check out Jordan’s filmmaking blog at twentyoneninety.blogspot.com.