John Carter of Disney

Watching Disney’s cinematic red-planet boondoggle, I suffered a semi-serious film-critic/fan-boy crisis. Every time I tried to write about the film last week, my efforts derailed quickly into a frothing Inside Baseball rant about budgets and marketing and Industry Schadenfreude instead of the film itself.

So does my lack of heartfelt interest in the relentlessly hyped and fussed-over John Carter (both before and after its screening) mean I’ve lost touch with massive, tent-pole, mainstream movies? Do I no longer care about big-budget, special-effects-driven fantasy and sci-fi action epics except as box-office cautionary tales?

Naw. It’s not me, John Carter, it’s you.

Directed by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) and starring Taylor Kitsch (who did fine, sullen work in TV’s Friday Night Lights), this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1917 pulp novel A Princess of Mars has all the right pieces. There are pretty CGI effects, including soaring airships and a slowly crawling city presented with glorious steampunk gears and wheels. There are genuinely talented actors like Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Dominic West, and Ciarán Hinds, plus Willem Defoe voicing and acting out the CGI-rendered (green, tall, and extra-limbed) Thark leader Tars Tarkas. And there are several semi-impressive action set pieces scattered throughout the two-hour-plus movie.

But all those elements feel like bright candles on a lumpy, charred cake. Like most giant-sized event movies these days, where studio bookkeeping and demographic marketing pandering drive major creative decisions, everything else about John Carter feels both under-cooked and over-baked.

As we journey to Mars in the late 1800s and explore its battling species alongside cynical Civil War vet Carter, there are glimpses here and there of Stanton earnestly trying to capture Burroughs’ pulp spirit, but the spastic narrative requirements of this kind of film, with a disastrously large budget hanging around its neck, quickly extinguish any possible flames.

Once you get past the spectacle, actors are required to sell the story (and the effects). Unfortunately Kitsch is painfully stripped of almost all emotion—he’s trying to play Carter’s broken stoicism, but the young actor lacks the depth and nuance it would take to make that sort of grown-up taciturn repression interesting to watch—nor does the movie give him time to meaningfully brood. Too often during its over-long running time John Carter drags when it should move and rushes when it should linger.

Likewise, as the film’s villains, West and Strong are only here because they’re the guys you hire these days for these roles. Having played so many of these roles in big, dumb, wanna-be blockbusters, they no longer bother feigning any sort of enthusiasm for the work.

Among the on-screen cast, only Collins as Martian princess Dejah Thoris seems to energetically embrace her character, while Defoe delivers well enough as the CGI Tars Tarkas that you almost wish they’d scrapped the nice-looking effects and had him act out the role in a stilts, green wet suit, and rubber extra arms.

Meanwhile, little remains of Burroughs’ swashbuckling glee—just a convoluted plot; a stuffy, hollow portentousness; and a flat, familiar “urgency” driven by yet another intrusive, non-stop music score. In the end, John Carter (Disney dropped the “of Mars” after last year’s Mars Needs Moms flopped) winds up feeling like every other movie of its bloated, overly busy ilk—lots of action, but short on true excitement or emotional core.

That’s not to say John Carter can’t be grudgingly enjoyed on a “nothing better to do for the next 130 minutes” level—you just have to lie back and think of Star Wars.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf