John CarterReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/08/12 20:46:59
Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the character of intergalactic swashbuckler John Carter exactly 100 years ago and it seems as though Hollywood has been trying to bring his adventures to the big screen ever since then. In 1931--six years before Walt Disney revolutionized the world of animation with the feature-length "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"--animator Bob Clampett contacted Burroughs about doing a "John Carter" feature and, on Burroughs' recommendation, began work on a series of short cartoons that were eventually scuttled when exhibitors who viewed some of test footage decided that the premise of a man on Mars was too outlandish for audiences to handle. Since then, people ranging from Ray Harryhausen to Tom Cruise to Robert Rodriguez have struggled to bring the adventures of John Carter to the screen but with the single exception of an extra-cheap 2009 DTV version of the book "Princess of Mars" starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords, not a single one has come to fruition. Finally, after decades of false starts, John Carter has finally made it to the screen in "John Carter" and while one would think that this would be a time of celebration for fans of the classics of the sci-fi genre, it turns out to be the kind of cinematic gift that most people--be they hard-core fanboys or casual moviegoers--will want to return once they see how little a century of anticipation and over $250 million buys these days.The trouble begins right from the start as the film opens with a jumble of expository narration that is meant to set the scene but which will most likely confuse anyone not possessing a working knowledge of Burroughs' original works. From there, we go into middle of a firefight between two warring tribes of red-skinned Martians from the lands of Helium and Zondanga and that is interrupted by another group--the all-powerful, chrome-domed Therns (represented most of the time by Mark Strong) who offer a talisman of incredible power to vile Zodanga prince Sab Than (Dominic West) to help them destroy their enemies, mostly just for the hell of it. Just as we are sort of getting acclimated to all that, we are then suddenly zapped back to Earth circa 1881 in order to provide two separate introductions to John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who we see first as a treasure hunter traveling the world in search of some unknown object and 13 years leader where he is a cavalry soldier who has left his post in order to search for a massive vein of gold in Arizona. This does not sit well with his commanding officer (Bryan Cranston) and John is thrown into prison, a move that allows him to have flashbacks of his tortured past and to break out of jail in a wacky manner. While on the run and trying to rescue his wounded commander (seems the escape led them straight into the path of Apaches), he inadvertently stumbles upon the gold but before he can do anything about it, he is attacked by someone who has seemingly materialized out of nowhere and in the process of killing the guy, he winds up getting zapped to some unknown world.
That unknown world is, of course, Mars, or Barsoom, as it is known here, and while our stranger in a strange land is trying to get used to his new circumstances (the atmosphere allows him to breathe but is sufficiently skewed so as to allow him to bounce wildly through the air with a single step), he is captured by yet another race of Barsooms, this time a group of 9-foot-tall creatures with six limbs known as Tharks and led by the vaguely noble Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and occasionally subverted by the headstrong Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton). Once the Tharks get a load of John's astounding powers, Tars wants him to fight alongside them but John wants nothing to do with anything other than getting home. Things inevitably change when he rescues the lovely Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of Helium, when she tries to escape a marriage to Sab Than arranged by here father (Ciaran Hinds) as a last-ditch effort to save Helium and bring peace to Barsoom. Dejah, by the way, is supposed to be a brilliant scientist but once the guys in the audience get a load of her skimpy outfit, any thoughts of her will not be centered on her intellect although those thoughts may well include the words "Helium" and "Barsoom," albeit in a different context. Anyway, with the help of his powers, Dejah, Sola and an incredibly loyal giant alien dog that takes a shine to him, John Carter tries to unite the Tharks and Helium to join together in battle against the Zodangas in order to save all of Barsoom from destruction before an epilogue that practically screams "last-minute reshoot."
Although the Burroughs stories have never quite made it to the screen in their proper form before, they have proven to be enormously influential to any number of classic films of the genre--in an ad campaign that decided to remove "of Mars" from the title, supposedly to avoid comparisons with last year's enormously expensive bomb "Mars Needs Moms," Disney has name-checked the likes of "Star Wars" and "Avatar" as works that might not have existed were it not for them. That is true but the problem is that the Burroughs material has been ransacked and reworked so thoroughly over the years that "John Carter" now inevitably looks like a copycat of the films that it inspired in the first place. In order to overcome this problem, a filmmaker has to figure out a way of presenting the familiar material in a creative new manner that allows viewers to feel as though they are experiencing it for the first time. Making his live-action debut following the Pixar classics "Finding Nemo" and "WALL*E," Andrew Stanton has been given the kind of budget most filmmakers can only dream of and clearly has the chops to create new and astounding worlds through computer effects but he never quite figures out how to get a handle on the material in a way that honors the original while reinventing it for viewers for whom the name "Edgar Rice Burroughs" sadly means nothing.
Sure, the story is silly--how could it not be?--but neither he nor his co-writers Mark Andrews and the great novelist Michael Chabon are able to bring any sense of fun to the proceedings in the way that the makers of the immortal 1980 take on the equally iconic "Flash Gordon" did. Instead the material is handled in the most plodding and desultory manner that drains all of the pulpy thrills that one might have logically expected from something along these lines. The initial scenes finding John acclimating himself to Barsoom lack any sense of excitement or discovery and as things go, the narrative bogs down into a morass of familiar themes and exposition so convoluted that it is often impossible to figure out what is going on at any given time. Hell, even before the action shifts exclusively to Barsoom, the film is already on life-support due to an incredibly convoluted and largely unnecessary prologue that, out of an inexplicable desire to load its hero down with a backstory designed to give weight to his character, winds up introducing John Carter twice while inadvertently reminding some viewers of last year's "Cowboys & Aliens," a movie that most people weren't exactly clamoring for the first time around. Thanks to these and other unnecessary additions, largely in the form of expository dialogue that only serves to get in the way of the narrative momentum of the story, what should have been a fleet and fun 90 minutes has been dragged out to 132 minutes that are so lugubrious that it feels as though one of those giant space dogs is sitting on your lap for the duration.
Another serious flaw in the film is the incredible degree to which the whole thing has been wildly miscast. It would stand to reason that one easy way to separate this film from other sci-fi epics of late would be by embracing the notion of off-beat casting along the lines of putting Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean." For example, I don't know about you but the idea of seeing a jumbo-sized film of this sort with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church (as another Thark) in the cast strikes me as wildly intriguing and having the potential to lead to something memorable. Alas, they are merely reduced to contributing their voices to standard-issue CGI creations and even those are tweaked to the point where they are hardly recognizable. As the bad guys, Mark Strong and Dominic West fail to contribute any sort of menace to the proceedings--the former is bland beyond belief while the latter simply looks too ridiculous to take seriously for a moment. In the role of John Carter himself, "Friday Night Lights" team player Taylor Kitsch takes his shot at the big leagues and proves that whatever it takes to hold a massive tentpole behemoth together, it is something that he does not currently possess. (This is news that may be dismaying to the folks at Universal, who put him front-and-center of the equally enormous and equally silly-seeming "Battleship.") At best, he seems like a placeholder character designed to fill in until the real hero arrives and at worst, he seems like this generation's Miles O'Keefe.
However, the weirdest casting decision--but not in a good or ultimately rewarding manner--is the decision to cast Lynn Collins, probably most familiar to you from her work on "True Blood," in the role of Dejah. Granted, she looks great in what little there is of her costume--frankly, the only suspense the film generates is whether her outfit has the necessary tensile strength needed to keep everything in place and retain the PG-13 rating--but the trouble is that she can actually act (she did a strong Portia opposite no less of a Shylock than Al Pacino himself in "The Merchant of Venice" a few years ago) and the combination of her genuine talent and intelligence with the silliness of the character she is playing is just too distracting. Let me put it this way--if Kate Upton were to suddenly decide to take a shot at acting, this is the kind of role that she could be comfortably situated in. The sight of Collins in the part, on the other hand, is about as ludicrous as what might occur is someone had the bright idea of casting Kate Winslet as Batgirl--from a fetishy standpoint, it sounds like a great idea but in practice, the end result is, like the rest of the film, pretty much a disaster.There are a couple of nice things to say about "John Carter." I liked the appealingly retro design of the Martian ships and how they look like the kind of thing that might have seemed like the state-of-the-art back in 1912. I liked the aforementioned space dog, a creature so adorable that I can imagine how a plush version of it would become a big seller in Disney stores even among people who never actually saw the film. And yes, the sight of Lynn Collins in her Helium outfit is a sight for the eyes made sore by the crummy and poorly integrated 3-D that was added to the proceedings long after being shot flat. However, not even those bits are able to raise "John Carter" to the level of relentlessly mediocre. While it may not be the all-time disaster that some early reports have indicated--it is frankly too boring to deserve such anti-accolades--it is an exceptionally frustrating failure because even if it does somehow become a success against all odds, its long and torturous journey to the screen will probably mean that most filmmakers will forego any of the classic sci-fi stories that have never been filmed in order to remake the same old things over and over again. It would have been nice to report that "John Carter" was a fitting marker for the 100th anniversary of its initial creation but based on this film, it will probably be another century before anyone even dares to bring him back to the screen.
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