'John Carter' fails to achieve liftoff
Everything old is...well, still pretty old in "John Carter," the big-buck dud from Disney meant to herald the start of the big-ticket movie season.
"Carter" is based on a century-old Edgar Rice Burroughs novel titled "Princess of Mars," and has served as source material to everything from the old "Flash Gordon" serial to "Star Wars" to "Avatar."
And while it's been the shoulders upon which the others stood, the "John Carter" tale is one that has never been directly told on screen (unless, of course, you would like to count the direct-to-video cheapie starring Traci Lords and Anthony Saboto Jr.? No? Wise choice.) Rumor has it that the project has been passed around more than a beach ball at a rock concert. Actually, the tales of the page-to-screen journey for "Carter" are numerous and legendary. Perhaps that in itself might make for a more interesting film than what we've been given.
Things go south rather quickly with "Carter," which attempts to set the scene, but instead offers us an encyclopedia's worth of backstory and numerous warring tribal battles between Martians. We are then thrust back to Earth during the 1800s, where we are introduced to our titular lead (played by Taylor Kitsch), a treasure-hunting cavalry soldier who's also in trouble with the law.
While escaping imprisonment, Carter is suddenly whisked through the galaxy to the planet of Barsoom (actually Mars), where he encounters a number of characters that are quite literally colorful, but figuratively as gray as ash. Carter immediately learns of superpowers he possesses on the planet that may have made a lot more sense in the early 1900s when it was written, but seem scientifically skewed today (Oxygen? Sure thing. Gravity? When it's beneficial.).
But "Carter" is not content to give us all sci-fi battles and complex storylines, so it is also layered with a love story featuring a brilliant scientist who happens to be a shapely princess who rocks an intergalactic bikini like another princess did so many years ago in a tiny film called "Return of the Jedi."
And speaking of "Jedi," while "Carter's" source material may have served as inspiration for countless space odysseys over the years, it does nothing to distinguish itself from the herd. I've often said that there's nothing wrong with revisiting an oft-told tale, as long as it's told well. But there's far too much telling going on here.
Director Andrew Stanton takes his first dive into live-action films (well, sort of, as much of "Carter's" worlds and denizens are CGI) after delivering some of Pixar's best pictures ("Finding Nemo" and "Wall*E"). Fellow Pixar disciple Brad Bird proved last summer that the transition can be a successful one, as he re-energized the"Mission: Impossible" franchise with "Ghost Protocol." But despite some energized battle sequences, Stanton can never crawl out of the pile of exposition "Carter" establishes. Despite a few clever gags, there's no sense of whimsy, which is necessary with such a preposterous plot.
The one piece of good news for "John Carter" is that "Cowboys and Aliens" beat it to the bottom as the worst of blending the two genres together. But as a big launch into the popular season for film going, "Carter" fails to achieve liftoff.