Movie Review: Lifeless on Mars

Taylor Kitsch’s nipples star in Cowboys & Aliens 2: Electric Boogaloo. On Mars. In 3-D. Yay?


John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an uncouth, unlikable, unshaven Confederate Civil War veteran who just wants to be left alone to look for some gold in Arizona. He discovers a cave that contains a device that mysteriously teleports him to Mars. Discovering that Mars’ lower gravity allows him to leap long distances and increases his strength, he soon becomes sought out by all sides of a planet-wide conflict. The beautiful princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) of Helium seeks his help to repel the tyrannical forces of Zoganda, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (Dominic West). Meanwhile, Carter has fallen in with the four-armed Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe), who would like nothing more than to see both sides wipe themselves out. Carter soon finds that he has no choice but to assist in resolving the conflict if he ever wants to return to Earth.

John Carter and the Mutant Monkeys of Mars.

In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a six-part serial that would become A Princess of Mars, the first of many books featuring John Carter’s adventures on Mars, or Barsoom, as it’s called by the natives. A film adaptation has languished in production hell for 80 years, going through incarnations as varied as a Bob Clampett animated film, a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion epic and a Robert Rodriguez/Frank Frazetta collaboration. We won’t be counting The Asylum‘s slag heap/train wreck straight-to-DVD version release in 2009, however. Eventually, the property ended up at Disney, who decided to throw $250 million at a production by a director who’d never worked in live action, headed by an unproven star and then make the wise decision of barely promoting it in an act of apparent self-sabotage. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. As directed by Pixar‘s Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and WALL-E), John Carter is a lifeless, jumbled mess of film elements in desperate need of a vision. It’s the cinematic equivalent of getting all your model pieces together, throwing them in a pile and then declaring the work finished. It’s not just a total abandonment of what made Burrough’s work a classic; it’s a completely incomprehensible film all on its own.

John Carter and the Boring CGI Landscapes of Mars.

Now, intentional adaptation decay is not inherently bad. The Three Musketeers took Alexandre Dumas’ story by the Cliff Notes and giddily ran headlong into a vortex of WTF-ness. It was entertaining despite (or most likely because of) its complete lack of fidelity, a playful if occasionally trying adventure. John Carter, however, wants to have it both ways. Either through misdirected ambition or simply lazy screenwriting, JC has many of the elements of the original story, but they’re seemingly there only because they have to be. There’s no logical progression from point A to point B, or from question to answer. White-hot gobs of exposition are thrown left and right, and still the film feels woefully unsourced. Carter’s jumping abilities vary depending on how far the script needs him to leap. To make matters worse, plot points from later books are added—while major plot threads from the original are abandoned—in a haphazard, jarring way that only serves to imbalance an already shaky film.

As written by Stanton, fellow Pixar-ite Mark Andrews and genuinely talented writer Michael Chabon (who really should know better), JC ends up being derivative of films that were already derivative of the original story. It’s a feedback loop that threatens to rupture the very fabric of cinematic space-time. The original story inspired thousands of books, movies and video games, and now the favor is returned by ripping off those properties left and right. Avatar is the obvious first target, but Stanton uses a few scenes directly out of Dune and even steals major moments from cut scenes in Final Fantasy X. The mobile, mechanical city of Zodanga feels like it belongs in Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind. Even a mid-air rescue (used twice) looks cribbed directly from Chronicle, released only weeks earlier. It takes a lot (or a complete lack) of skill to make a James Cameron film feel trail-blazingly original, but JC does it.

The Totally-Not-The-Na’vi People of Mars.

The film’s pacing lurches forward like a slow, ungainly thing. The film is in a constant cycle of brief bursts of intensity, followed by long releases punctuated by purple dialogue and excessive plotting. Burroughs’ original work was a quick, rapid read that only lingered when actual conversations between characters occurred. Epic battles lasted but a paragraph, and extensive search-and-rescue operations only took a few sentences to complete. Carter usually felled his enemies in twelve words or less. Predictably, JC draws those out in an attempt to epic itself out, but it never works very well. Assuming the scene isn’t too chaotic and choppy to follow, the energy is forced and jagged. A scene where Carter unleashes his grief over the loss of his family (shown in flashback and something not in the original story) by single-handedly slaughtering most of an army of attacking Tharks is even sillier than Anakin Skywalker‘s revenge on the Tuskan raiders in Attack of the Clones.

Nothing is helped by casting Taylor Kitsch in the lead. While he may have been impressive on Friday Night Lights, he’s even more unprepared for big-screen battles than Andrew Stanton is. With a deep baritone and rock hard set of ab muscles, he certainly looks and sounds the part, but that’s where it stops. He’s just a few branches less wooden than Sam Worthington, and he has almost no distinguishable screen presence. His John Carter is not the resourceful, cunning soldier of the original story but a dullard without convictions who inexplicably develops a conscience and a brain off-screen somewhere around 90 minutes into the film. Most of Kitsch’s acting is done by his biceps and pectoral muscles, which we see quite a lot of, since he is almost always (thankfully) shirtless.

John Carter and the Abdominizer of Mars.

Lynn Collins does a better job as Dejah Thoris, but she’s a better actor in the first place and at least isn’t required to be the masculine avatar of every 13-to-34 year old man in the audience. In fact, Collins is almost endearing in her effort to bring some genuine gravitas to her role, bringing out every bit of her Shakespearean training for a film that certainly doesn’t deserve it. Dejah Thoris is a more complex character in the film, at least initially. In the book, she’s a savvy and determined woman, but constantly a victim of captors who want to do unspeakable things to her for extended periods of time, usually tonight into tomorrow morning. In fact, most of the book’s plot revolves around Carter’s rescues of Dejah from multiple captors. The film Dejah is not just a princess, but also a respected scientist AND a fierce warrior (but sadly, not an astronaut or a veterinarian). However, once Act III starts and the costume designer finally decides to prominently display Collins’ admittedly gorgeous set of Barsooms, Dejah frustratingly becomes just another princess in peril waiting for a walking set of muscles to save her. And that would mean something if she and Kitsch had anything resembling chemistry, or if the “romance” between Carter and Dejah Thoris seemed at all plausible or realistic.

A Princess/Warrior/Scientist/Victim/Obligatory Love Interest of Mars.

The best and most memorable performances, however, come from the supporting cast, usually from the people with the least amount of screen time. A nearly unrecognizable Bryan Cranston has a great couple of scenes in the first part of the film as an army colonel trying to bring Carter back into service to Uncle Sam, while James Purefoy is criminally under-utilized as the rakish Heliumite captain Kantos Kan. Purefoy seems to have stolen every bit of charisma meant for Kitsch, and it’s a sad, sad thing that he has so few moments to display it. The Tharks are disappointingly generic, all the more disappointing considering the actors behind them. Only a trace of Willem Dafoe’s voice remains in Tars Tarkas, and despite Samantha Morton‘s pedigree and effort, her lines as the sympathetic Sola could have been done by anybody. Finally, Mark Strong plays the Mark Strong villain role well, even though his character —a bald, shapeshifting albino puppet master masquerading as a divine emissary, which is as ridiculous as it sounds—is never adequately defined or explained. 

In fact, the whole film suffers from a distinct lack of cohesion. Part of that has to do with the film’s PG-13 rating. A proper adaptation of Burroughs would certainly be, at the very least, a hard R rating, filled with copious amounts of graphic violence and containing a much higher percentage of thongs and pasties. Stanton’s JC is a neutered mess in comparison. He changes Woola, Carter’s loyal beast, from a powerful wolf-like creature into an ugly/adorable giant puppy dog with fangs. Too many of the scenes are played for cheap laughs with an unfortunate amount of slapstick, especially in the first scenes on Mars. The story’s complex web of political and cultural intrigue is jettisoned for an all-too-familiar “stop the evil warlord by joining together warring factions” plot. Instead of focusing on Carter slowly and willfully assimilating to life on Mars, the film barrels through to get to the threadbare plot and spends far too much time discussing the intricacies of Carter’s transport to Mars, an event that was never explained in the original story.

John Carter and the Erotic Fantasy of Mars.

While Stanton and crew may have been aiming to recapture the pulpy, swashbuckling, sword-and-machina verve of the original Carter stories, what they’ve created is little more than the next flailing, doomed attempt by Disney to launch another Pirates of the Caribbean-sized franchise. It’s Prince of Persia without the charismatic lead, entertaining self-awareness or authoritative direction, and it feels like even more of a video game (the constant talk of “the ninth ray” will only make you nostalgic for Square Enix games of days past). It’s as tiresome and tedious as the script’s constant use of the exclamation “By Issus!”, which is only an iota of silliness away from “By Grabthar’s hammer, what a savings.” Take all that and wrap it in completely unnecessary, migraine-inducing 3-D effects used to poorly mask the director’s faults, and you have over two hours of wasted potential. 

But at least it has this going for it: Antonio Sabato, Jr. is nowhere to be found. That’s got to be worth at least a full ratings point.

Rating: 3 out of 10 / D

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor. Of Mars. <a href="; title="imageimage

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