I've always felt like something of a generational/demographic traitor because I've never been obsessed with the original Star Wars trilogy. And yet, alleged progress on the blockbuster-cinema front is making George Lucas' first set of space Westerns look more interesting all the time. Better a big-screen toy catalog with good (if archetypal) characters, memorable performances, neat-o creations, well-conceived fantasy worlds, and a sense of physical gravity — which is what the original Star Wars series was — than a big-screen video game with cardboard characters, bland performances, confusing made-up MacGuffins, shoddily conceived landscapes, and palpably weightless, computer-generated action. That's the shape too many contemporary sci-fi/fantasy/action movies take, the new $250 million Disney epic John Carter the latest among them.
First conceived a century ago by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (who would later create the more celebrated Tarzan), Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Confederate soldier from Virginia (a potentially interesting fact the film doesn't do much with) who finds himself — or maybe a copy of himself — accidentally transported to the planet Barsoom — aka Mars — where he's first discovered and taken prisoner by a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned natives called Tharks.
An odd confluence of Earthling anatomy and Martian gravity make Carter a super-hero of sorts on the new planet, with Hulk-like strength and the ability to leap across the barren landscape like a flea. These skills put Carter in the middle of another civil war of sorts, a conflict between two human-like city-states that seems to be threatening the future of the planet. He partners with the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), of the city Helium, in its rivalry against Zodanga, whose slimy leader Sab Than (The Wire's Dominic West) demands her hand in marriage as a prerequisite for peace.
The plotting of John Carter is confusing, especially if you're not into fantasy mumbo jumbo — a magical pendant, a mysteriously powerful "ninth ray," a trio of shape-shifting godlike men who may or may not be called "ferns." But the focus here is less on plot than on a series of action set-pieces. The one of these teased strongly in the film's marketing, which pits Carter in a Roman-style arena against a pair of enormous, multi-armed "white apes," works pretty well because it concerns a limited number of moving pieces in a confined space. But the others are noisy, dull, overpopulated bits of digital chaos that are forgettable in that familiar modern-action-movie way.
John Carter's mish-mash of pulp genre elements — Western, sci-fi, fantasy, sword-and-sandal, Greek mythology, Indiana Jones-style treasure-hunting, etc. — feels like fanboy catnip, but I can't imagine even most ardent comic-con types getting too worked up over this. Surprisingly for the first (mostly) live-action film from Pixar master Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), this is a dull-looking film that doesn't add much visual value in its 3D incarnation. Those first Star Wars films are so much more interesting to look at while deploying so much less technology. (And now Lucas is constantly, needlessly "updating" them.)
Despite a warmly conceived dog-like slug-with-legs creature who loyally stays at Carter's side, there's not enough humor here. And when Stanton tries to get serious — cutting between a memory of wartime loss at home and a mundane Martian battlefield scene — it doesn't work at all.
Ultimately, this would-be tentpole is as ridiculous as an even truer '80s comp — fellow Earth-hero-on-another-planet adventure Flash Gordon — but less colorful and less cognizant of its ridiculousness, which makes it a lot less fun.
Opening Friday, March 9th