By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Like a gravitationally unbound Captain Carter, the late ’50s-early ’60s sword-and-sandal epic has leapt up and over five decades into today’s 3D multiplex. But that leap pales next to the centurial vault from 1912’s publication date of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first stab at a novel – the serialized sci-fi adventure tale originally entitled A Princess of Mars – to this cinematic, live action/CG debut of John Carter.
So tell us, Mr. Burroughs, as a writer who’s well-acquainted with indeterminate travel between two worlds: How goes the trip?
Darn the luck, he just stepped out. Maybe en route to another planet. We’ll have to answer for him.
If you don’t mind unfamiliar jargon flying at you during the first few minutes of the movie (i.e., “Barsoom,” “Zodanga,” “Thark, “Holy Therm” and “Helium” [no, not the gas, though this $250M undertaking presents bloat a-plenty]), wooden acting reminiscent of overwrought thespians starring in those sweaty historical/Biblical fables mentioned above, and excessive blather about “nine points,” “evil spiders,” “caves of gold” and fighting for “worthy causes” … then John Carter is just the ticket.
But like a speedy Thark-ian canine hotfooting it across the vast sandy terrain of Mars on his ten prodigious paws … I’m getting ahead of myself.
After an opening air battle between warring tribes, and a jaunt to 1881 in which we learn that ex-Confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) may very well be dead, we jump back to a hostile Arizona Territory, circa 1868. One minute, Carter’s hiding out from Apaches in a cave; the next, he’s lying in an unfamiliar desert – and rather than walking, he finds he can leap hundreds of feet in the air. He becomes an unwilling pet of the aggressive Tharks, a 12-foot-tall, 4-armed species sporting fearsome tusks and skin tinted a fine shade of pistachio green. But the Tharks are the least of his worries … soon, he’s caught up between the Heliumites, led by a nervous ruler (Ciarán Hinds, in perhaps the most uncomfortable performance he’s ever delivered) and his princess daughter Dejah (Lynn Collins), embroiled in a fight with Zodanga. To effect a peace between the two cultures, Dejah must marry evil Zodangan leader Sab Than (Dominic West, looking and acting like a hammy Stephen Boyd from 1959’s Ben-Hur). That is, unless Dejah can enlist John Carter’s help. But Carter’s somewhat distracted by the realization that he’s inadvertently landed on Mars … and hasn’t a clue as to how to return to Earth.
While Pixar colleague Brad Bird did exceedingly well with his first live action feature (namely, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), John Carter director/co-writer Andrew Stanton, Oscar winner for both Wall-E and Finding Nemo, has yet to find his rhythm in this new-to-him discipline. While he takes us on a grand 3D trip around and through caverns, rivers, deserts and colossal set pieces, and gives us much to appreciate with the fantastical creatures of many shapes and sizes … he can’t quite conquer the human beast. Oddly enough, the performers who are masked in CG garb (e.g., Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton), are highly emotive. But the actors who don’t get to play inside the digital trappings are literally laid bare, appearing emotionally stripped. (Exceptions being the stoic Mark Strong, and Bryan Cranston, incorporating an easy, wry humor into early scenes as the exasperated Colonel Powell.)
In particular, the leads are underwritten, devoid of chemistry and compelling energy. Playing Princess Dejah (or is that “déjà,” as in, haven’t we seen blank ingénues before?), Collins adopts an uneven mid-Atlantic accent, as if she’s trying out for Shakespeare-in-the-Park. As for Taylor Kitsch, known for his starring role in TV’s Friday Night Lights, he’s somewhat of a cipher. When he’s around talent such as Cranston’s, he delivers almost as good as he gets. But acting in scenes with his ineffective ladylove, or the tepid evil warlords, he falls flat … and no, this has nothing to do with a bad landing from one of his many leaps. Perhaps, with a more experienced live action director, these problems might have been avoided.
All the above objections notwithstanding, if you pony up your movie dollars simply to appreciate the creatures and the 3D visuals, John Carter still proves to be a fun, Saturday matinee-type entertainment.
Rating on a scale of 5 occasions of, um, thwimming with Tharks: 2.5
Release date: March 9, 2012
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon
Based on the story “A Princess of Mars” by: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, with Thomas Haden Church and Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 132 minutes