Edgar Rice Burroughs' first Barsoom novel was published in 1912, and A Princess of Mars proceeded to inspire and influence a vast amount of sci-fi over the 20th-century. Its impact can be found most apparently in Star Wars and Avatar, but even properties like Flash Gordon and Superman owe a debt. This unfortunately means any modern adaptation lacks freshness to modern eyes; and even a $250 million spectacle isn't that impressive post-Phantom Menace. Still, even having accepted this movie won't feel as ground-breaking as it was to readers a century ago, there's no excuse for the crushing bore of Pixar guru Andrew Stanton's live-action debut. John Carter's a narratively flaccid and emotionally empty playground for CGI and desert landscapes that, while attractive to look at in isolation (i.e. great trailer), prove distracting because there's never anything interesting happening between the real people.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, halfway through a trio of duds post-X-Men Origins: Wolverine and pre-Battleship) is a former Confederate soldier enlisted against his will to fight the Apache, who winds up on the surface of Mars after taking refuge in a cave utilised by bald aliens called Therns to teleport between worlds (add Stargate to the list of movies inspired by Burroughs). Acclimatizing to the Red Planet, Carter discovers his bone density and change in gravity has given him increased strength/agility, before realising he's in the midst of a Martian war between the humanoid citizens of Helium and Zodanga, with a green-skinned, four-armed tribal race of Tharks stuck in the middle. In many ways John's fighting for the underclass natives, during a civil war (add Dances with Wolves to the list?)
I must confess that I'm not well-versed in Burroughs, so John Carter's deviations and contentious changes to the books didn't trouble me while watching the movie. I'm sure my ire would be stoked if I'd read Burroughs' work, and spent decades patiently waiting for technology to allow a version of his story to be told. It's not hard to see why Disney greenlit the project, given its esteem in SF circles and the fact much of its plot, ideas and imagery has proven efficacious at the box-office in various guises. Sadly, John Carter fails because of basic blunders and storytelling issues that Stanton should have nixed early on. Kitsch looks like a male underwear model, his behaviour isn't convincing as a Confederate gentleman in the Mal Reynolds mould (add Firefly), and his response to his bizarre situation is wholly unconvincing. If you plucked a 19th-century Southerner and dropped him on the surface of Mars, where he's suddenly leaping over small mountains and making friends with green aliens with tusks, you'd expect some confusion and denial. Beyond a nice moment when Carter relearns how to walk in a low-gravity environment, there's little joy in the discovery of the new.
Most of the other actors are obscured behind CGI alter-egos, and barely register as a consequence. It's almost a shock to realise Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton have key roles in the movie (and why cast Morton at all, given how unrecognisable her voice is?) The Wire's Dominic West fares better as villainous Sab Than, given a high-tech bracelet by manipulative Matai Shang (Mark Strong) to conquer Barsoom, literally single-handed, but the only real stand-out is Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the book's eponymous Princess. She's sexy, tough, spirited and entertaining to watch—at least in the absence of anyone else coming close to matching her—so it's a shame her story's so entwined with the singularly wooden Kitsch.
John Carter's a laboured beast, with more thought spent on production design than plot and character—which, considering it has a literary classic as a guide, is an unforgivable failing. The framing device of including a fictional Edgar Rice Burroughs (grown-up Spy Kid Daryl Sabara) just obfuscates matters, the dialogue's continually flat and unmemorable, and the action sequences don't even quicken a pulse. You spend the film asking yourself why Stanton's Pixar background didn't make him realise the story and characters weren't working—considering they're the foundation of all the movies he's helmed previously, from Finding Nemo to WALL-E.
The booby prize for his mistake is an expensive-looking production in desperate need of heart and soul. It was undeniably a tough book to adapt because the passing of time's made everything look unoriginal (however unfair that may be), but at the very least audiences should have come away entertained by an old-fashioned, courageous, romantic, ambitious sci-fi romp... not bored by a lifeless procession of computer effects with uncharismatic humans struggling to make anything feel vital and alive. Unfortunately, another ready-made franchise bites the dust because of creative missteps. It's this year's Golden Compass.
directed by Andrew Stanton / written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews & Michael Chabon (based on "A Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs) / starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy & Willem Dafoe / 132 mins.