Director: Andrew Stanton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Since the '30s, Hollywood has been trying to make a movie out of pulp maestro Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 A Princess From Mars, the kickoff to the author’s dozen or so installments of legendary John Carter of Mars interstellar adventure series.
Long decades of near-misses and canceled celluloid productions crushed the hopes of such film luminaries as Ray Harryhausen, John McTiernan, Tom Cruise, Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau and Looney Tunes director Rob Clampett. While other movie makers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron went ahead and unofficially pilfered from Burroughs’ stirringly imaginative, visionary books in the making of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Avatar.
That’s how rich, fun and spirited Burroughs' stuff is. Someone stumbling into John Carter might wonder what all the fuss is about. The gargantuan, frequently entertaining, but often lumbering, movie marks the dispiriting live-action debut of Finding Nemo and WALL-E director Andrew Stanton.
The film stars Taylor Kitsch (growly-voiced, appealing, but one-note enough to rival Keanu Reeves) as the heroic, mysterious, pacifist Civil War captain who was swept mysteriously to the soon-to-be-extinct planet called (by its four-armed, giant green inhabitants) Barsoon.
Once there, our war-weary hero gets swept up in yet another, even more confusing war. He wins over a sword-wielding, battle-ready princess (Lynn Collins) whose father (Ciaran Hinds) has promised her hand to a villainous conqueror (Dominic West) who is ruled by an even more villainous shape-shifter (Mark Strong). As if all this wasn’t confusing enough, there are not one but two framing stories.
One of them involves an 1870s Army officer (Bryan Cranston, wearing an awful blond wig) trying to enlist Carter's help in slaughtering Indians; the other has Daryl Sabara, as a young Edgar Rice Burroughs, inheriting his uncle’s sprawling estate, fortune and diaries. What had every right to be a jaw dropping, brilliantly original, breathless Saturday matinee was full of good intentions that fell flat. And cheesy. Some of the dialogue by Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon is intelligent and fun, but jeez Louise, this thing is long, repetitive and constantly screeches to a halt courtesy of blah-blah-blah exposition that’s as murky as the pointless 3D.
John Carter isn’t terrible. But it never shakes us, sweeps us up or transports us with its own unique vision. Maybe they'll get things right in a promised sequel, but with production costs rumored to be around $250-million, it’s best not to hold our collective breath.
About the Author
Playboy Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello has written many Playboy Interviews and 20 Questions features. He is the author of such books as the notorious Bad Movies We Love (with Edward Margulies) and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the latter of which has inspired a dramatic feature film set for production in 2012. His most recent Playboy Interviews include Josh Brolin and Cameron Diaz.