For fans of sword-and-sorcery fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series of pulp novels set on Mars have long been a sort of cinematic Holy Grail.
Filled with bizarre creatures, massive alien cities, and unearthly landscapes, the books have for a century defied big-screen treatment in large part because Burroughs (who was also the creator of Tarzan) had an imagination too fevered to be realized through conventional movie technology.
Now that we’re in a digital age where whatever you can think of can be made flesh (figuratively speaking), John Carter has finally come to your very own TV set via DVD, courtesy of the folks at Walt Disney.
It’s got eye candy out the wazoo, but under the direction of Andrew Stanton (the director of Pixar’s WALL-E and Finding Nemo here making his live-action debut) this hugely expensive (reportedly north of $200 million) production is a leaden thing, marked by an embarrassingly inadequate lead performance and an utter absence of anything resembling a directorial style.
John Carter starts out promisingly enough with an amusing sequence set in the Old West in which prospector John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), once a Confederate cavalryman, is imprisoned by a Union officer (Bryan Cranston) who demands that he serve in the fight against rebellious Apaches.
Chased into the desert, Carter takes refuge in a gold-lined cave and encounters a strange being whose odd medallion instantaneously transports the Earthling to Mars ... or, rather, Barsoom as it is known by the locals.
(Here’s a problem...reading the word “Barsoom” on the printed page is one thing, but when spoken aloud it conjures up images of a Mafia-run topless club. “Hey, Vinnie, let’s go down to Barsoom for a brew and a lap dance.”)
Anyway, Carter first falls into the hands of the Tharks — big green, four-armed humanoids who live a non-technological existence.
Then he gets involved in a civil war between the human residents of Helium, a center of learning and culture, and the hordes of the “predator city” Zodanga and its ruthless leader Sab Than (Dominic West). Carter gets into this love/hate thing with the Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
There’s no shortage of nifty technology (like huge flying machines that resemble glass-and-steel dragonflies) and dangerous creatures (massive “white apes” to which criminals are sacrificed in the arena).
But Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (yes, the acclaimed novelist) can’t make much sense of Burroughs’ overcooked characters and situations. Certainly there’s nothing to cling to emotionally in this pulpy stew.
Maybe with a different leading man things might have been different. But Kitsch, who was so effective as a moody high school jock on TV’s Friday Night Lights, hasn’t got anything like the gravitas to pull this off. The production is crying for a John Carter who can act with more than his pecs and abs, maybe someone with the reluctant heroism of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. Some of Kitsch’s line readings are just plain embarrassing.
At one point a Martian character identifies Carter as a Virginian by his accent. Say what? Kitsch can barely get his dialogue out, much less deliver a Southern accent. Steve Reeves is starting to look pretty good.
Collins (she was Logan’s girlfriend in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) certainly can fill a metal breastplate (fashions for women on Barsoom are of the Slave Girl Leia variety), but nobody should have to introduce themselves with the line: “I am Dejah Thoris, regent of the Helium Academy of Science.”
Points for keeping a straight face.
The cast is rounded out by several reputable actors like Ciarán Hinds, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, and Polly Walker (most of them providing the voices for animated characters), but the only performer to catch a spark is James Purefoy as Dejah Thoris’ retainer and bodyguard; he brings a gently mocking attitude to the proceedings. It’s the only bit of edge in the whole flick.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.