I've taken a bit of a break from reviewing for the last couple of weeks, and for a few months before that I was on a steady diet of staid and solemn Oscar bait. So I was actually excited to head back to the IMAX, don my 3D glasses, and watch $250 million worth of sword-wielding heroes, snarling villains, and six-limbed aliens beating the holy hell out of each other for a couple of hours. (Serious films have their place, but let's face it: there is nothing about Albert Nobbs that could not have been improved by handing Glenn Close a sword and throwing her into an arena with a couple of giant, furry gorilla monsters.)
But as the inaugural blockbuster of the season, John Carter is a bit of a disappointment. It's not horrible: it's just dull, cheesy, and deeply, deeply silly.
Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), and based on a series of pulp novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter stars Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) as the eponymous hero, a Confederate cavalry officer turned treasure hunter who accidentally stumbles upon a gateway to the planet we call Mars, and which the natives call Barsoom. Just as Earth empowered his literary descendant Superman, Carter discovers that the lighter gravity on Mars grants him super-strength and the ability to leap ridiculous distances in a single bound. These skills come in handy when he becomes involved in a planetary conflict between the peaceful city-state of Helium, the conquering warlords of Zodanga, and the green-skinned, six-armed nomadic tribes of the Tharks.
(And, as I complete that description, I sense a great disturbance in the force, as though millions of women—and hundreds of thousands of men over the age of 15—had suddenly cried out that they don't have any intention of seeing John Carter, thank you very much.)
The three teenage boys who sat behind me in the theater did enjoy John Carter far more than I did, but upon leaving the theater I overheard one of them complaining about how shamelessly the film ripped off Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar. He had the sequence of influence wrong, of course—Burroughs published the first John Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, in 1917—but he was also right: the fact that generations of other writers have followed Burroughs' formula doesn't make this film, in 2012, any less formulaic. John Carter may be one of the original sci-fi action heroes, but by now there is nothing original about any of this.
That wouldn't be such a problem if John Carter were more fun, but it's a bit of a slog; the film clocks in at just over two hours but feels much longer. Much of the problem is the tone, which is admirably—but misguidedly—faithful to its pulp fiction roots. The screenplay—by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and pulp-aficianado Michael Chabon—plays it completely straight with the earnest, self-serious values and clunky dialogue of Burroughs' world, in a way that simply doesn't translate to the 21st century. In this day and age, this approach comes across as almost unbearably cheesy and lacking in self-awareness. An ounce of wit or irony in the dialogue would have gone a long ways towards making John Carter more like Star Wars and less like The Phantom Menace.
And though I am a great admirer of Kitsch's performance as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, he is woefully miscast in this underwritten role: John Carter has virtually no character on the page—he is neither innocent Luke Skywalker nor roguish Han Solo—and if he was going to come to life on the screen he'd need an actor who brought more to the table. As it stands, Kitsch's John Carter is a pretty cypher who exists on an emotional spectrum somewhere between stoic and glowering. Supporting roles are no better written: Willem Defoe and Samantha Morton manage to bring a little life to their four-armed motion-capture avatars, but Lynn Collins is rather forgettable as the sword-wielding love interest, and Dominic West looks appropriately embarrassed as the sneering villain.
The lion's share of the blame for this quarter-billion dollar mediocrity must go, however, to Stanton. Making his live-action debut after working on (and directing two of) a long string of fabulous Pixar movies, Stanton does not bring anything close to the same magic to John Carter, which often feels like an overblown (and less fun) version of an '80s B-movie like Flash Gordon, The Ice Pirates, or Krull. The CGI-creatures are technically well-realized, but the expensive special effects look downright amateurish in many sequences, and the visual storytelling is muddled and strangely joyless. (And it hardly bears mentioning, but the 3D effects are absolutely worthless: any lingering goodwill I had for the technology after Hugo was drained away after 10 minutes of John Carter.)
But the real disappointment is in the basic elements: the lackluster story, the painful dialogue, and the wooden characters. It is probably unfair to bring comparison to Stanton's work for Pixar, but I have trouble believing that any of these elements would have escaped the first-draft revision process at the Pixar studios. It makes one realize that the difference between those films and John Carter is not a matter of technology, but of care, wit, and heart. Sadly, John Carter is lacking in all three.