By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Well, that settles it: there is life on Mars. Now, if only there were a bit more life in John Carter.
That said, there’s still enough imaginativeness and creative energy to render this science-fiction adventure pleasing to its target audience, especially as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for younger viewers.
Originally called John Carter of Mars (a better title), John Carter is a fish-out-of-water take on alien life based on a series of books by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, the first of which is entitled A Princess of Mars.
Taylor Kitsch (best known for his role on the TV series “Friday Night Lights”) plays the title character, a former Confederate captain in Virginia, weary of the Civil War and grieving for his late wife, who, while prospecting for gold in Arizona, is mysteriously teleported to Mars, a lush planet patrolled by 12-foot-tall creatures who refer to their planet as Barsoom.
He is at first taken prisoner on Barsoom. But with the change in gravity enhancing his strength and agility, he escapes, then rescues a princess, and finds himself embroiled in another civil war, this one a bloody conflict between battling tribes whose leaders are played by Willem Dafoe and Lynn Collins.
Other inhabitants of the war-torn planet are played by Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, Dominic West, Polly Walker, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, and Jon Favreau. In addition, Bryan Cranston turns up as an earthling, and author Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), who is Carter’s nephew, figures in in the film’s framing device.
With the Red Planet dying because of the loss of its atmosphere and water, a truce is critical. And maybe Carter can help bring one about.
Director Andrew Stanton (who directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, co-directed A Bug’s Life, and co-wrote all three Toy Story flicks) makes his live-action debut, having co-written the cluttered, nearly inpenetrable, flashback-laden, and oddly humorless (after a few early stabs at casual slapstick) screenplay with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon.
They have so much exposition to dispense that they can’t do justice to, and generate much emotional investment in, the characters. Stanton seems to approach the material in an overly straight-faced way, as if he has traveled to Mars and left irony behind on Earth.
Although the film sometimes seems derivative, recalling sci-fi adventure films such as Star Wars and Avatar, that may very well be because those films borrowed from the source material here.
The much bigger problem, however, is that the visually splendiferous adventure is so much better as spectacle than drama, and that, despite its eye-popping moments, its well-north-of-two-hours running time threatens to be eye-closing as well.
Stanton’s animation background probably helped him to navigate the motion-capture process and to avoid being overwhelmed by the numerous and impressive CGI creatures, humanoid and otherwise, which are seamlessly integrated into the proceedings. But that he hails from Cartoon-ville also might also explain why the characters and performances are so underwhelming, and why the cartoonish action sequences, not just crowded but chaotic to a fault, are both difficult to follow and impossible to swallow.
As for Kitsch, here starring in a film clearly designed to launch his career as a movie star, he’s up to the task, even if he is a bit on the bland side and hasn’t yet fully learned how to hold the movie screen.
The problem is that we don’t find ourselves wanting to know more about him — which does not bode well for this intended franchise.
On the other hand, Lynn Collins makes a vivid, “wow-where’s-she-been?” impression in a breakout lead performance as the Princess of Mars in which she nearly overpowers Kitsch.
So we’ll beam up to 2½ stars out of 4 for the visually dazzling if dramatically frazzled John Carter. As the title character might have pointed out to Tarzan, it’s a jungle up there!