Rumbling now into a theatre near you, the first blockbuster is early in arriving this year – let's blame the mild winter. Certainly, there's no mistaking its credentials. The gargantuan price tag, the pulp-novel brand, the extraterrestrial setting, the CGI adornments, the 3-D camera, the warriors, the princess, the effects, John Carter is epic by every measurement. So it would be only fitting to issue a verdict in keeping with that scale. Epically fantastic would be a welcome change, although epically awful would at least keep the symmetry. Alas, epically bland will have to do.
It isn't bad so much as innocuous, $250-million worth of innocuous, framed by a decent start and a solid finish but sagging through the long middle like a cheap mattress. Then, what's billed as a tonic plays like a soporific, leaving the fiercest battle to be waged in your seat – yawns must be vanquished, and sleep fought off.
Of course, the blockbuster has long been an enthusiastic miner of pulp fiction. This one enjoys the distinction of digging deeper into the past, all the way back to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom series, published early in the last century. The screenwriting trio of Mark Andrews, novelist Michael Chabon and director Andrew Stanton have adapted the first book in the saga, borrowed a bit from later instalments, and spun out the yarn over a two-hour-plus running time – ample by most standards, yet still not enough to contain the clutter of this sprawling plot.
Our eponymous hero begins in the divisive climate of mother Earth. A disillusioned vet of the American Civil War, John Carter (the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch) avoids the clutches of the army only to find himself inside a cave of gold and mysteriously transported smack into the midst of another internecine conflict. He awakens in the arid desert of Mars (Barsoom in the native lingo), where the city states of Helium and Zodanga have been going at it for millennia. Different planet, same old bloody strife, perhaps because both these cities are populated by humanoids who look much like us – indeed, exactly like those of us whose taste in body art runs exclusively to red tattoos.
Not so the Tharks. Green-hued, nine feet tall, tusks protruding from their upper region, boasting a complementary pair of spare arms, these folks seem like the real Martian deal. Their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe + digital enhancement) takes a shine to Carter, especially to his acrobatic skill in the lower gravity of Mars's atmosphere – the guy can jump in prodigious leaps and bounds. Since flying humans should always be a visual treat, it offers Stanton, who made his rep in Pixar animation, his first directorial test in live action. He fails, and the 3-D glasses do nothing to boost his grade.
Much better are his CGI sets, which impressively depict the ecological death rattle of a dying planet, as vast waterless plains give way to crumbling spires of urban decay. Through this bleak landscape, Carter and his new pals – Tarkas, the maternal Sola and Woola the amiable monster – trek off in the direction of Helium and its lovely princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Apparently, in an ill-advised attempt to broker a peace, Ms. Thoris is being forced into a political marriage with the villainous king of Zodanga. Happily, she and the Earthling hit it right off. Sparks fly at first sight, and love blooms even in the red desert.
But that long middle patch is upon us – prepare for a seemingly interminable sag. Perhaps the problem is simply that the Burroughs material has already been heavily plundered by others, influencing the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and George Lucas and James Cameron. From shape-shifting to glowing medallions, from flying machines to sword fights, from the stranger to the strange land, hellishly growling beasts to the massive clash of alien armies, few will have trouble picking up on these influences.
But the irony is obvious: At this point in the history of pulp, it's the original that seems derivative. Neither the writers nor Stanton have done anything to address that problem, with the inevitable result that our eyes glaze over when the action heats up. A century ago, Burroughs's imaginative brand of silliness was unique; now, when silliness abounds, it's just trite.
Our slumbering interest does get ramped up at the finale, although no thanks to Kitsch, whose inflections remain as flat as ever. Then again, perhaps we shouldn't slight him, because here at last the symmetry is perfect. His John Carter does what John Carter is – it's an epic delivered in a monotone.
- Directed by Andrew Stanton
- Written by Andrew Stanton, Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews
- Starring Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins
- Classification: PG
- 2 stars