You have to give Disney a certain amount of credit for taking on this unwieldy beast: an incredibly expensive epic based on a 100-year-old sci-fi pulp series with Western and sword-and-sandals elements and an untested star whose primary acting style is being taciturn and effectless.
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West
And if you ignore anything regarding, you know, science, or reason or good acting, this movie succeeds in being what it set out to be- a rollicking adventure with fancy swordplay and women in sexy Princess Leia bikini costumes and fabulous steampunk flying machines. And even though it’s about 30 minutes too long and the 3-D cinematography is terrible and everyone in it appears to have learned how to deliver dialogue from Jean-Claude Van Damme, you start to have fun in spite of yourself.
So here we go:Based on the pulp fiction series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the eponymous John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, of “Friday Night Lights”) plays an ex-Confederate soldier who talks in Christian Bale’s spooky Batman voice and lives in Arizona looking for gold. He passes out in a cave and wakes up on Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants). He’s discovered there by huge green aliens with extra arms, who take him in when they see how the reduced gravitational pull of the planet makes him super strong and fast and able to jump comically impossible distances. There’s also vaguely ethnic red aliens who are engaged in a Civil War, and they live in a city called Helium. There’s a sexy princess (Lynn Collins) who’s supposed to be a genius but spends most of her time striding around the Mars desert in a series of increasingly skimpy outfits. The villain is McNulty from “The Wire” (Dominic West) who wears the most fashionable military uniform in creation and is guided by a mysterious sect of bald men, who maybe want to rule Barsoom, or feed off of its destruction or something?
Insane? Of course. Unintentionally hilarious? Yup. But somehow, through the sheer will of director Andrew Stanton, it sometimes manages to walk right up to the edge of the ridiculous without completely diving over. Stanton is making his live-action debut after helming several Pixar films, but there’s still a cartoonish quality to the production that works pretty effectively. Mars is demonstrated in extremity of color, burnt reds and oranges mixed with icy blues, and the machines and tools that populate the world are a marvelous concoction of industrial gears and switches.
But for all of this beauty and clever design, goodness the acting is just terrible. The Hollywood powers-that-be are attempting to make Kitsch into a big new star, but besides a ludicrously sculpted core the poor guy has no charisma or magnetism. He’s lost in a movie like this, wading through an insane plot, forced to try to deliver lines that weren’t that great to begin with and coming out of his mouth are cringeworthy. The movie just is too big, it surrounds him and swallows him whole. Ciaran Hinds does slightly better as the alien beauty Dejah’s father, and Willem Dafoe demonstrates lithe voicework as the leader of the green multi-limbed aliens. But even they can’t tame the story and give it a center. As a result you never feel entirely comfortable on John Carter’s Mars, and can’t quite get your arms around it.
“John Carter” will probably bomb. It’s source material is too obscure with little brand recognition, the star is a relative unknown, and even the trailer makes the movie look confusing and weird. And even though I have zero desire to ever see the movie again, I wish that more production companies took that kind of risk instead of just continually putting their money on the safe bet. It’s a bad movie. You shouldn’t pay your hard-earned dollars to go see it. But if you do, appreciate that this is an underdog in a tent-post project’s wrapping. And that’s a very rare beast indeed.