Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels were a rite of passage for many of us. And on the written page, the century-old science-fiction/pulpy-adventure tales of John Carter of Mars remain timeless works.
The same cannot be said of John Carter the movie, an ambitious project that's survived decades of start-stop development hell to finally make it to the big screen through director and co-writer Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E).
Unfortunately for Stanton, the long period of gestation has robbed the film of its originality and made it a victim of its forebearer's success. Given the books' creative influence on other filmmakers, much of what John Carter offers onscreen we've seen before and in better movies: Star Wars, Avatar, Stargate, and even Flash Gordon, to name a few.
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This is simply a case of a film arriving late to the party, bringing with it a disappointing experience of overly familiar story elements strung together with no strong identity of its own.
Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins in the Friday Night Lights TV series) stars as the title character, a former Confederate soldier from Virginia haunted by his service in the war and the death of his wife and child. Carter is now a drunken dreamer, whose only goal is to unearth large amounts of gold he is certain is buried in a mountain. But his aspirations change once he encounters and kills an alien humanoid. Carter is then astral-projected by a strange device to Mars -- the Martians call their planet Barsoom -- and taken prisoner by the Thark, four-armed giant creatures struggling to survive a planet-wide civil war by two human factions, war-minded Zodanga and peaceful Helium.
With Helium on the verge of elimination and Mars laid waste by the war, King Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) of Helium offers his daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) in marriage to the Prince of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West).
Then Carter shows up. With the weaker gravity of Mars, Carter is stronger and faster than the planet's natives, and able to bound great distances in a single leap. With a burgeoning romance between he and Dejah, Helium again has hope for its survival.
Kitsch gives a routine performance as Carter; in fairness, the character, as Burroughs' developed him, was always a vessel for battles and whatever feats of derring-do his imagination could conjure. Carter is far from today's template action-movie hero -- he doesn't offer funny one-liners or memorable war cries -- and literally leaps through the story from one expensive action sequence to the next.
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Collins certainly looks the part of a Martian princess, but she fails to make much of an impression as Carter's love interest. The trouble is the lack of empathy for Dejah's plight or that of her people. It's a problem that plagues most of the film's cast, save for Willem Dafoe, whose strong voice work as Thark leader Tars Tarkas makes the CGI alien the most human of anyone onscreen.
Making his live-action feature-film directing debut, Stanton fails to impress the way fellow Pixar filmmaker Brad Bird did with his live-action debut Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Bird used his animation background to push the limits of real-world cinema with some spectacular action sequences, while Stanton appears uncomfortable working with live actors in CGI settings; the two aspects don't mix well together onscreen.
Stanton and the film's other co-writers, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, have cobbled together a utility space fantasy that never morphs into the epic tale it could have been. Their script provides the same pulp dialogue as found in the books, but it's delivered with grim and bored faces that scarcely elicit the same excitement and adventure of Burroughs' work. There's an absence of fun -- the key ingredient to a fantasy film -- throughout much of John Carter. Where's the necessary sense of wonder and joy in the film tone to suck in the audience?
Without that contagion, John Carter is a movie stuffed with the familiar, but lacking a heart.
Directed by Andrew Stanton. Screenplay by Stanton, et al, based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Walt Disney Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action. Running time: 131 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
John Carter .......... Taylor Kitsch
Dejah Thoris .......... Lynn Collins
Tars Tarkas (voice) .......... Willem Dafoe
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734. Follow him on Twitter: bladepopculture.