When confederate soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch: Friday Night Lights) realizes he’s on Mars, he is filled with wonder and amazement. I tell you this now, because it’s hard to decipher what Carter thinks or feels since Kitsch plays him with a slack-jawed blankness that makes you wonder if there’s enough air on the red planet to support brainwaves.
This is a shame, as the movie has been in development for 79 years. Disney should have waited for an even 80 and produced a film with a decent leading man.
The film is based on Edgar Rice Burrow’s novel A Princess of Mars, published 100 years ago, and follows widower Carter, who misanthropically searches the dessert for a cave of gold and stumbles upon a portal to the fourth planet from the sun.
Here, the locals call Mars Barsoom and are in the midst of a nasty civil war. Two clans of humanoids are killing each other in hopes of ruling the land. Stuck in between are the Tharks, four-armed green centaur-like creatures who are the Native Americans in this thinly veiled Civil War metaphor.
For the North, we have Helium, a humanoid group that thrives on learning and science. For the South we have Zodanga, a moving parasitic city led by the thuggish Sab Than (Dominic West: The Hour).
So far Zodanga has been beating the snot out of Helium, thanks in large part to help from Therns — observers who control inter-planetary travel and amuse themselves by shaping world events.
Got all that? Ok, let’s move on.
Sab Than offers an olive branch by way of a proposal: If Helium’s sexy princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins: Ten Year) agrees to marry him, he’ll stop killing everyone. The Heliumites are thrilled about this, except the young princess, who doesn’t enjoy being treated like chattel. She is a warrior, expert diplomat and inventor — though she has yet to invent pants and spends the movie in a pair of metallic panties.
John Carter takes a long look at the leggy princess and joins with Helium against the evil Zondangans, with an assist from his pals the Tharks.
This could all lead to an exciting battle, pitting nations against one another. But don’t get your hopes up.
This movie needs a hero, and what it got was a cardboard cutout with flowing locks and rock-hard abs. It’s a shame that director Andrew Stanton (Toy Story series) could not bring his gift of infusing inanimate objects with life and personality to his first live-action feature, since Buzz Lightyear would have been a much more convincing space adventurer than Kitsch. At the very least some of the effects budget could have been allocated to animating his face.
It’s a shame since everyone else in the movie seems to be trying so hard. Veteran British actors West, Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy imbue their brief screen time with wit, humor and fun. Purefoy especially acts circles around Kitsch in a hilarious hostage sequence that’s the brightest moment in the movie.
Even Willem Dafoe, whose distinct visage is absent from the screen, turns in a good performance as Tars Tarkas, the leader of the Tharks.
All is not lost on Barsoom. Stanton shows promise as a live-action director. His set piece battles are interesting, and his 3D imagery unobtrusive. Burroughs’ story has never graced the big screen before, but you can see how his original ideas influenced sci-fi from Star Wars to Avatar.
Still, this is not a good movie: it’s an overlong epic with a terrible hero. It’s not worth 3D prices unless the studio finds a way to digitally edit a better actor into the lead. They can do that, right?