'John Carter' craters on Mars

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT
  • Updated: March 8, 2012 - 2:46 PM

Throwing $250 million at a mish-mash Martian sci-fi action saga doesn't make it good.

"John Carter," the live-action adventure from "Wall-E" director Andrew Stanton, concludes with a dedication "to Steve Jobs, an inspiration to us all." It's hard to believe Pixar's founder would have signed off on this project. The film is as overcomplicated, bloated and crash-prone as a bad-old-days Microsoft release.

Begun in Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 fantasy "A Princess of Mars" and running through 30 years of sequels and spinoffs, the John Carter saga was long considered the greatest science-fiction movie never made. It still holds that distinction.

Stanton's adaptation is not a coherent story of interplanetary heroics but a bewildering $250 million mash-up of "Cleopatra," "The Last Samurai" and "Attack of the Clones." It has the form of an adventure but not the spirit. It is relentless -- saloon fights! Indians! swords! beasts! death rays! -- but tedious. At the end you don't stand up and cheer, you sigh in relief.

Three narrators, three timelines and 20 minutes are required to deliver all the exposition in a prologue setting up John Carter's back story and arrival on Mars. Carter (Taylor Kitsch of "Friday Night Lights") is a Confederate Civil War veteran turned gold prospector. He is done with war.

To prove this point, he makes a half-dozen escape attempts from an Evil Army Officer (Bryan Cranston) who wants to force him back into the military. When he succeeds in galloping off, he overshoots the mark by about 50 million miles and lands on Mars. How does this happen? Magic is the answer, as it is for most of the film's strenuous amazements. On low-gravity Mars, Carter has the ability to jump around like a coiled spring, but the plot jumps around more. The story arc could have emerged from a committee of kangaroos.

Having traded one vast desert for another, Carter finds himself in the crossfire of a new war. He becomes the slave-pet of the leader of the green-skinned, four-armed Tharks. This barbaric race skirmishes against two warring tribes of more civilized humanoids, the evil hordes of Zodanga, and the good people of Helium. Citizens of Helium do not speak in a high, squeaky voice, but the film would be more fun if they did. In an additional layer of complication, a bald immortal (Mark Strong) appears and vanishes willy-nilly to advise the nefarious Zodangan chief (Dominic West) on strategy.

Because Helium's Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) dresses like Slave Leia, there's scant suspense about which side Carter will be fighting on. It sure isn't because of the quality of their conversation. Kitsch is handsome and has a warm smile. Collins is pretty and has elegant diction. Together, they have no spark. They fall in love not because it feels right but because the film requires it.

In place of clearly defined characters, streamlined storytelling and rising action, we get a barrage of massive, inconsequential battle scenes. Stanton has no feel for this sort of spectacle, creating a vast alien world with zero sense of wonder. The film only jolts to life in brief comic asides. There is a slapstick scene in which Carter struggles to adjust to Martian gravity, a lovable, slobbery frog/dog critter that becomes Carter's faithful pet, and a moment when Carter's Thark owner gives him a dope slap for doing something truly boneheaded. A similar thump on the noggin ought to be directed at the people responsible for "John Carter." Don't they realize that cowboys and aliens don't mix?

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