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Edgar Rice Burroughsí tale of time-travel and outer space comes to life in director Andrew Stantonís John Carter.  The film is based on the first book in Burroughsí Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars, written in 1912.  It seems an adaptation had to wait a full century before movie technology could give a full account of the fantastic world in the authorís head.  Itís a shame then that John Carter isnít good for much except proving that a big screen CGI onslaught is no substitute for a cohesive or intelligent script.

Sometimes in the late 1800s, a very strange thing will happen to a former soldier of the Confederate army.  Having no life to go back to after losing the war, John Carter seeks gold in them thar hills and happens upon a cave full of it with a special jewel at its center.  Contact with the trinket provides a very otherwordly experience and Carter is suddenly not in Arizona anymore.  Subtle changes like his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and super strength let him know things are very different.  His eventual run-in with some tall, green grasshopper-like pursuers is also a big clue something odd has occurred. 

Captured by the Tharks, an insectoid, six-armed race of nomads, Carter is given the ability to understand their language thanks to a kindly minder and he learns that the jewel he touched has somehow transported him many miles from home to the planet Barsoom, which he knows as Mars.  The novelty of this little creature with massive power endears Carter to the warrior tribe and he becomes an ally to their leader.  Carter has arrived in the midst of interplanetary strife, the Tharks are a downtrodden, feared race in constant war with giant, white apes and the more humanoid red Martians, who are themselves embroiled in drama.  Princess Dejah of the land called Helium is being cornered into a political marriage which gets a big thumbs-down from her.  Dejahís attempt to escape her unwanted fiancť brings her across the path of the Tharks and one John Carter, who discovers the princess is not only really pretty, but may hold the key to his getting back to Earth.

Andrew Stanton is primarily known for his long association with Pixar Animation Studios and directing such hits as Finding Nemo and WALL-E.  One would reckon Stanton to be very familiar with the cinematic fantastic and making impossible worlds come to life. Unfortunately, in his first live-action project, Stanton shows that heís much better working with pixels than people.  John Carter is an unruly mess with a confusing script, characters with only the barest development (and wardrobe, but hey) and a running time that will make the audience feel as if an actual trip to Mars would have been shorter and less disorienting. 

A scorecard and glossary should be handed out with every movie ticket, because theyíre sorely needed.  As if purposely generic, John Carter may be the only name viewers will recall out of the baffling mess of red planet characters with monikers like Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas, Tal Hajus, Matai Shang, Sab Than and Kantos Kan, and provinces called Helium and Zodanga.  It doesnít help either that the Tharks all resemble slightly beefier, Naívi versions of Slim, the Walking Stick insect from A Bugís Life.  There are these bald shape-shifter guys who pop up in our heroís time on Earth as well as on Barsoom and seem to not like Carter and Princess Dejah very much, but I couldnít tell you why.  Thereís something about a big secret that Princess Dejah discovers thatís a threat to the current political power, but itís all lost in the barely comprehensible script.  Donít even get me started trying to figure out the time-travel aspect because I donít enjoy nosebleeds.  Itís an odd thing because thereís all these subplots and characters, yet the writing of the John Carter script seems very much for children: The dialog, when one can understand whatís going on, is simple to the point of dullness with many unintentionally laughable lines.  The performances are so broad most of the actors seem to simply be yelling their lines at each other instead of giving them any kind of life.  This is very much the case with the excellent Lynn Collins (From the heartbreaking Angelís Crest) as Princess Dejah, who overacts wildly, in part, I suspect, to make up for the deficiencies of her handsome but vapid leading man, Taylor Kitsch; who costarred with Collins previously in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Kitsch sports the same hairstyle he wore as Gambit from that film, but a lot fewer clothes.  John Carterís great supporting cast, featuring Mark Strong, CiarŠn Hinds, James Purefoy and Dominic West, really have nothing to do but tramp about in silly costumes and splashes of red body paint.  Perhaps owing to Stantonís Pixar past, the only interesting and memorable characters are the CGI ones, notably the daughter of the Thark chief, who becomes John Carterís keeper and the provider of the movieís few common sense moments.  And then there is Woola, a big dog/lizard thing from the Thark encampment that takes a big liking to John Carter.  Despite his fluffy, bulky appearance, Woola can match Carter in super-speed, run miles across the desert and saves the other charactersí hash from time to time.  Woola steals the picture singlehanded, or rather decahanded, cos he/she/itís got ten legs.  Obviously, the other characters in the film have no personality because it was all given to Woola.  If John Carter had been two hours and twelve minutes of Woola just running around the screen, I would have been a happy camper, but sadly it isnít.  Any moment that didnít feature Woola left me bored and frustrated with the murkiness of what I was watching.  Still, even the antics of the fabulous Woola wonít be enough to prop open the eyes of the young kids in the audience, who will ostensibly be the only people to enjoy this movie.  Surprisingly, even the special effects-heavy action and look of the CGI world are nothing to write home about; I can think of twenty video games with better visuals and thrills and any of those would be more involving and entertaining than this flat tire of a film.

While we have a cutesy bookend wherein Edgar Rice Burroughs appears onscreen as John Carterís nephew and the discoverer of his uncleís diaries which unspool this tale, I reckon the real Burroughs wouldnít be particularly thrilled with whatís become of one of his most influential works.  John Carter is a misguided, muddled mess that shouldíve waited another hundred years for a good script.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 9th, 2012




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