John Carter is a big red turkey
– by Shawn Conner
Discovered at the right age – say, 11 or 12 – and, to be gender-biased for a moment, the appropriate sex (boy) – the Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs are like manna from heaven. Far-off worlds, exotic aliens, beautiful princesses, purple prose – it all comes together in the series of 10 books that the American pulp fiction author wrote between 1912 and 1948.
Which is to say, I don’t doubt the filmmakers’ – chief among them, Pixar/Disney’s Andrew Stanton – earnestness in wanting to bring this pre-adolescent fantasy to life. After all, nothing about the Mars books screams “hot property” (i.e., it’s no Hunger Games or Twilight or Dragon Tattoo). I’m sure that, at the heart of this multi-million debacle, there was at some point a sincere and heartfelt spark of love for the yellowing, but effective, material. So how did things go horribly, horribly wrong?
In a nutshell, John Carter is an overlong, overstuffed, and an often criminally dull homage to Burroughs’ series. There’s too much, it’s too confusing and the CGI is – I don’t want to say “awful”, because the effects were doubtless sweated over by trained professionals and cost zillions of dollars. But the computer-generated everything completely detracts from any ounce of realism or actual physicality in the action scenes – not once do you feel like the characters are in actual physical danger. And there’s nothing about Carter’s physics-defying leaps (due to Mars’ lower gravity, or something) that is consistent – he can leap as far and as accurately as that moment in the story requires.
This might be nit-picking, but it also explains why the movie becomes boring after awhile – nothing is at stake; we know that Carter (and his screenwriters) will be able to do whatever is necessary at any given time to get the job done. And the moments that aren’t filled with sword-clanging and battling Tharks (the four-armed eight-foot-tall green Martians) are dreary expository sequences that go on too long and just confuse the viewer even more.
In a movie like this, the audience needs heroes to root for and villains to despise. The square-jawed hero of the piece, the titular John Carter, is played by Taylor Kitsch. A poor man’s James Franco, Kitsch is barely up for the job, whether trying for Clint Eastwood-like flintiness in the opening scenes or heroic resolve as the story progresses. At least someone like Franco might have been able to bring in an extra layer of knowingness to the hooey-drenched story. As Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars, Lynn Collins has really nice blue eyes.
Also, what’s the point of having A-listers like Willem Defoe and Samantha Morton “play” tall green aliens if they’re going to be unrecognizable in the roles? Are these names supposed to fool the audience? Who out there is going to say, “Gee, I really want to see John Carter, I hear Thomas Haden Church is the voice of a big green alien?”
And poor Dominic West is given the most thankless task of all – as the bad guy with the most screen-time, The Wire actor needs to be hiss-worthy. But his Sab Than is just a standard-issue villain. Only Mark Strong as uber-baddie/puppetmaster Matai Shang has any of the insidiousness that could help fuel a potential franchise.
According to the credits, novelist Michael Chabon had a hand in the screenplay. But there’s little evidence of this, as John Carter lacks any literary touches – a quirky line of dialogue here, an unexpected show of character there – that might have lifted it from the overwhelming familiarity of nearly every scene. It’s one of those movies that is both too fast and too slow – so much happens in its two hours and yet you’ll be hard-pressed, after the movie, to recall any of it.
Oh yeah, did I mention it’s in 3D?