‘John Carter’: Not a dream, just a snooze

March 6, 2012

I’d probably seen the placard on the side of New York city buses a half-dozen times – the one for “John Carter” in which what appear to be two giant, eye-less, four-armed apes are shown against an orange background with “John Carter” in big capitals – before I actually noticed the tiny John Carter figure in the foreground, wielding a mammoth chain with a big rock attached to the end.

Which is about the same impression Taylor Kitsch makes in the title role of this first live-action feature by computer-animation master Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”).

Part of the problem is the script by three writers (including Stanton and novelist Michael Chabon), which doesn’t seem to know how to invest Edgar Rice Burroughs’ material with the kind of wide-eyed, Saturday matinee excitement that this sci-fi pulp action-adventure demands. And part of it is Kitsch himself, playing an Earthman on Mars like a surfer who just rode a wave on to a hostile beach.

Kitsch played the sensitive lug Tim Riggins on “Friday Night Lights” and was one of the few exciting things about “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Here, however, he’s so laidback that he might as well be watching this movie as acting in it.

He plays Carter, a post-Civil War-era Confederate soldier who, while fleeing Indians, winds up in a cave that drops him into a wormhole that transports him to Mars. (Or most of him: Although he’s a corporeal human figure on Mars, his Earth body remains behind in that cave in the Old West.)

He is captured by the Tharks, a group of four-armed green giants whose language he comes to understand after being fed a potion. He becomes a combination mascot-secret weapon for them, when it turns out that the difference between Mars’ gravity and Earth’s gives him super-strength, as well as the power to leap huge distances. Not that it keeps him from being knocked unconscious on a fairly consistent basis, the better to advance the story without having to make sense.

To summarize: He meets and befriends Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), daughter to Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), leader of one humanoid band, who are at war with the other humanoid band, which is led by the ruthless Sab Than (Dominic West). To avert war, Tardos promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to Sab, a fate she desperately seeks to avoid, with the help of John Carter (who the Tharks all refer to as “Virginia,” after he introduces himself as “John Carter of Virginia” – a real knee-slapping example of the film’s quick-witted humor).

There is also an advanced race known as Therns, represented by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who have advanced technology and seek to rule Mars by pitting all the various tribes against each other. For comic relief, John Carter gets his own Martian pet, a dog-like creature that looks like a large unformed lump of clay with legs and a face. It is meant to provide comic relief – like the Martians calling Carter “Virginia.”

Kitsch, Collins and the various humanoids act against green screens – and not particularly seamless green screens at that. There’s a feeling of the technology struggling to keep up with Stanton’s vision – but also of Stanton working feverishly (and often unsuccessfully) to inject a sense of excitement and suspense into this material.

Unfortunately, the bones of a workable story are there but the way they’ve been fleshed out leaves something to be desired. Despite the millions of bytes of information at work in the visuals, Mars ends up looking alternately like the American southwest and sketches from H.R. Giger’s discard pile.

Kitsch is not just flat; he’s practically flat-lining as Carter, so uninvolved does he seem. Collins exerts effort but, opposite Kitsch, it’s like acting next to a black hole that absorbs but does not reflect her energy. Hinds, West and the rest of the humanoids act as though they’d wandered in from an old “Flash Gordon” serial; the voice actors who speak for the computer-generated Tharks (including Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton) should be thankful no one will associate them with this film.

Burroughs’ original was no great shakes as literature, but it did manage to gin up the tension on a regular basis. The only tension in “John Carter” comes from the headache caused by the 3D glasses.

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