Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Barsoom novels, about a Confederate Army deserter who wakes up to find himself on Mars in the midst of a very different Civil War, more than 100 years ago, laying the groundwork for a century of science fiction. The bitter irony of "John Carter," director Andrew Stanton's big-screen adaptation of the first book in the series, "A Princess of Mars," is that the source material was so influential that the film feels hopelessly derivative.
"John Carter," starring Taylor Kitsch, is teeming with the forefathers of C-3PO and Flash Gordon, and you can hear arguments that Han and Leia will have in the distant future. Flying ships, monsters, and lasers are all here, but they all look either tired or quaintly-yet-lamely retro. Like Superman, who was invented decades later, Carter has superhuman strength and can leap tall buildings in a single bound thanks to Mars’ different gravity. Heck, even the name John Carter is now associated with "E.R.," whose creator, Michael Circhton, reportedly loved the Barsoom books. The touch of "Braveheart," when a blue-blood covered John Carter rallies the Tharks, green four-armed Martians, to fight for their freedom, is just a weird and unfortunate coincidence.
This is Kitsch’s first leading role, and while he definitely possesses movie star looks and a superhero body, his presence doesn’t really fill a movie screen. Kitsch made a name for himself as a teen brooder on “Friday Night Lights,” as bad boy Tim Riggins, a role and medium that suited him. On TV, a close-up of Kitsch giving some young thing his “C’mon, baby…” smile works. But as John Carter, on a giant 3D movie screen, he lacks the stuff of heroes. Though to be fair, the script does him no favors, spending so much time trying to explain the why and how of every last Martian’s every act.
Stanton made his name writing and/or directing Pixar classics like “Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo” and the “Toy Story” trilogy, but this is his first foray into live-action film. He’s clearly trying to pay an old debt to the serial adventures of days gone by, which makes for a maddening pace. Every 10 minutes the story sags under he weight of a faux cliffhanger punctuated by a gasp or two. There’s so much talking that it's almost like watching a soap opera in space, which is especially frustrating when you’re looking for a western in space.
Another old-timey narrative trick our great-grandparents loved, the story within a story, does nothing more for the film than make it 10 minutes longer on both ends, and unnecessarily convoluted. There was a time when folks needed some explanation for such a fantastic tale, but it's 2012 and audiences will happily go to Mars without such nonsense.
The costumes make it hard to take folks on Mars seriously, as our heroes and villains race about in a mishmash of armor, leather and feathers that evokes nothing so much as "Barbarella" or the 1981 “Clash of the Titans,” and much of the technology looks equally uninspired, sort of steam-punk lite.
“John Carter” isn’t terrible, per se, but having spent a quarter-billion dollars Stanton should’ve been able tell a cracking story and create a wholly immersive experience. Instead what we get is a film that feels almost as old as the books that inspired it.
"John Carter" opens everywhere this Friday, March 9th