This blockbuster self-destructs
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 9, 2012
"John Carter" is being hyped as the first blockbuster of the year, but it's really the first big flop.
Budgeted at a reported $250 million, this dreary slog of a mess (or is that mess of a slog?) seems to exist primarily to remind viewers of older, better movies. Audiences ancient enough to remember Ray Harryhausen will pine for the days of that animator's great 1950s stop-motion epics. Anyone who came of age with "Star Wars" will inwardly sigh and forgive Jar Jar Binks. Heck, compared with "John Carter," even "Cowboys and Aliens" looks good.
What's "John Carter" about? That's not a rhetorical question: Seriously, what the heck is going on in this movie? Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's story "A Princess of Mars," this adaptation gets off to such an incoherent start that it takes almost the entire, interminable two-hour-plus running time to catch up. And the trip isn't worth it: Narratively stilted, visually ugly and imaginatively bankrupt, "John Carter" just sits there, and sits there, and sits there, forcing the audience to sit right along with it.
But, okay, if it's a synopsis you want: "John Carter" is nominally about a Civil War veteran who, while searching for gold in the Arizona territory, happens upon a dingus that transports him to Mars, which the natives call Barsoom, where he can jump really high and is taken prisoner by tall, skinny four-armed creatures and meets a beautiful princess named Dejah Thoris.
Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights"), who spends a great deal of time with his shirt off; Dejah is played by the gorgeous actress Lynn Collins, who spends a great deal of time showing off her tattoos and tossing smoldering looks at Carter with her ice-blue eyes.
At least that seems to be what's going on in "John Carter," which was adapted for 3-D presentation after it was filmed, resulting in images as murky and difficult to decipher as the story itself.
Directed by Andrew Stanton ("WALL-E," "Finding Nemo") in his live-action debut, what's supposed to be a fanciful journey in time and space is unforgivably awful-looking, from the fusty, dusty earth tones of the story that frames most of the action to the sulfurous light that bathes Mars - er, Barsoom - in a monotonous yellow haze. The creatures that Carter befriends - a rebellious tall-and-skinny (known as a Thark) named Sola and a doglike pet with an enormous black tongue - look like they were conceived after consulting the wadded up sketches in George Lucas's wastebasket.
If you look carefully, you can detect some real acting going on in "John Carter" - that's Ciaran Hinds, dressed in a ridiculous toga, as the embattled leader of the Barsoomian city of Helium. And that's Mark Strong in the film's most potent role of a shape-shifting baddie named Matai Shang. But even Strong's best efforts can't save "John Carter" from collapsing in on itself like a dead star. With any luck, the sequel this movie so strenuously sets us up for will meet the same fate before it gets to the screen.
Contains intense sequences of violence and action.