At 132 minutes, John Carter will likely hold moviegoers' attention during its run time. The first major movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' highly influential sci-fi pulp saga, it comes complete with sky-high action sequences, swashbuckling fight scenes and computer-generated creatures that your kids will either find awesome or disturbing.
But, even with all of this, the movie is still one tacky sight.
In this tale, first serialized in 1912 and set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, we meet the title character (played by the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights), a former Confederate captain whose search for a gold-filled cave has him leaping through time and space to the planet of Mars. Once he's on Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants), Carter picks up superhuman strength and agility that come in handy when he finds himself in the middle of a war between alien species.
As expected, John Carter is wall-to-wall computer-generated imagery. However, the clunky visual effects and prosaic photography make it look more shoddy than sleek, like someone decided to do a cruddy, Cannon Films-style version of a Ray Harryhausen movie. And, no, the 3-D doesn't make things look any better. The visual blight is sadder considering this is the live-action directorial debut of Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who brought so much splendor to Finding Nemo and WALL-E. (The success Brad Bird had with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol shows that it's possible for Pixar filmmakers to do superlative live-action work.)
Adapting mostly from the first of 11 novels in Burroughs' Barsoom series that was written over three decades, Stanton (who co-wrote the script with Pixar co-worker Mark Andrews, with revisions by novelist Michael Chabon) does try to make Carter as adventurous as Burroughs' books were, while also attempting to include allegorical complexity. For example, the Civil War subtext gets amped up fully (one species of Martians squirts blue blood whenever they're struck). But the script crams in so many elements from the John Carter universe—including characters that show up in later books—that the narrative itself ends up being clumsy and clichéd.
The cast is yet another problem. Kitsch may be a stud, but he plays the supposedly altruistic Carter as a charmless pain in the ass, a guy who often appears too apathetic to fight anyone. As his typically semi-clothed love interest, Texas native Lynn Collins can certainly work a British accent, but her chemistry with Kitsch seems more forced than relaxed. Add to that a supporting cast full of veteran actors doing their usual shtick (Dominic West as another two-dimensional asshole; Mark Strong as another shifty, nefarious figure; etc.) and you have a cast that can't muster up the conviction to be second-rate. However, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church do tolerable work slapping on motion-capture suits and voicing members of a group of multi-limbed savages.
It's unfortunate that, after languishing in development hell for nearly a century—that straight-to-DVD version starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords notwithstanding—it's come to this. Such filmmakers as Jon Favreau, Robert Rodriguez and Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett were attached to this project at various times. In the end, the Burroughs story that inspired Star Wars, Avatar, every sci-fi book written by every major sci-fi writer, and even Carl Sagan's worldview was turned into this mugly, mediocre mess. It's depressing when you think about it: For the last 100 years, John Carter has been an inspirational, beloved hero. Now thanks to this adaptation, a pulp icon will be known as the jerkwad from that lame-ass Disney movie.
I weep for the future.
Visit Artery, the Indy's arts blog, to learn more about John Carter's influence on popular literature.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Non-starter of Mars."