Friday, March 23, 2012


Oscar winning "Finding Nemo" director Andrew Stanton struggles to make Edgar Rice Burroughs' vintage cowboys and aliens epic "John Carter" (**1/2 out of ****) into a spontaneous, larger-than-life, saga about tyranny and rebellion on the Red Planet. Mind you, Asylum Entertainment beat Disney Studios to the punch with its own abysmal adaptation of the Burroughs' novel "A Princess of Mars" that recycled just about every genre cliché. Essentially, Disney and Stanton have delivered what qualifies as a synthesis of "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Star Wars." This is one of those sci-fi actioneers with a universe populated by anthropomorphic animals and mythological "Clash of the Titans" intermediaries. Burroughs penned his colorful pulp escapism about a century ago in 1912 before stories like it became commonplace. Since Hollywood lacked the computer generated technology to make the world of fantasy appear believable on celluloid, the filmmakers preoccupied themselves with Burroughs' less challenging Tarzan novels. By the time Tinsel town conjured up the technology to produce movies about similar escapades on other worlds, the studios had gone off on their own tangents. In other words, the John Carter novels languished in obscurity, while later epics like "Star Wars," "Dune," and "Avatar" emerged and appropriated similar themes. What had been groundbreaking when Burroughs wrote it now looks hackneyed, even though Burroughs forged the formula that others imitated. The cinematic "John Carter" gives new meaning to the adage about the first being last. Sadly, too, despite its imaginative special effects, this yarn amounts to another cookie cutter, sci-fi/fantasy melodrama that suffers from a sense of déjà vu.

Disillusioned Confederate cavalry officer John Carter (Taylor Kitsch of "The Covenant") is prospecting for gold in Arizona when the U.S. Seventh Cavalry tries to recruit him to combat hostile Apaches. Carter refuses not only because this isn't his fight, but also because he has already the Civil War claimed the lives of his wife and daughter. Carter escapes from the guardhouse, purloins a horse, and absconds into wilds. Our hero doesn't get far before he finds himself caught between pugnacious Apaches and trigger-happy cavalrymen. Gunfire erupts and Carter struggles to escape from the predatory redskins. Scrambling for the sanctuary of a cave that the superstitious savages refuse to enter, he surprises an ethereal alien with a supernatural medallion. Carter blasts this extraterrestrial, confiscates the pendant, and then suddenly finds himself sprawled on distant Mars. Mars resembles the desolate American southwest with its inhospitable terrain and inhabitants. He encounters tall, light-green warriors. These fellows boast an additional pair of arms, heads that resemble the Mutant Ninja Turtles, and large three-toed feet. These four-armed creatures with small tusks protruding from their jaws behave like barbarous African tribesmen and have domesticated animals to serve as their beasts of burden. When Carter isn't tangling with their garrulous giants, he contends with striking humanoid natives covered with tattoos who fly extraordinary mechanical airships which resemble Leonardo da Vinci's designs. The barbarians reside in the outlands, while the humanoids live in metropolitan cities of Helium and Zodanga.

Basically, a civil war has been raging for a thousand years between these rivals when John Carter arrives. The treacherous Sab Than (Dominic West), Jeddak of Zodanga wants to slaughter the citizens of Helium. A mysterious society of Therns, led by the villainous Matai Shang (Mark Strong of "The Green Lantern"), who serve the goddess Issus, intervenes and arms the Zodangans with a powerful weapon called the Ninth Ray. Helium has nothing to match this devastating blue laser technology. The ubiquitous Therns, however, refuse to let the Zodangans annihilate Helium. They advise Sab Than to marry the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), to create a stronger society. The defiant Princess flees, and Sab Than pursues her. He destroys her ship, buts she falls into John Carter's arms. On Mars, our eponymous protagonist isn't the same fellow as he was in Virginia. He can leap vast distances and packs a haymaker of a punch that drops his adversaries as if they were straw. Predictably, Carter falls in love with the princess, and she reciprocates. Stanton, "Samurai Jack" scenarist Mark Andrews, and "Spider-Man 2" scribe Michael Chabon do a fair to middling job with their adaptation. Happily, this franchise inducing nonsense isn't too Disney-esque, but they have taken considerable liberties with Burroughs' book. Anybody who has seen enough sci-fi fantasies will spot the elements that inspired those who came after Burroughs to use them in their movies. Essentially, "John Carter" constitutes a "Stranger in a Strange Land." Like the quintessential adventurer, our hero embarks on a long journey and blunders into a civil war of sorts between two antagonistic factions.

You don't need Cliff Notes to distinguish the heroes from the villains on Mars. Incidentally, Mars isn't really Mars. Instead, the natives refer to it as Barsoom. One of the problems with any movie about an alien world is the environment as well as the natives. Everything might as well be happening on Earth for all of the difference that it makes. Since our hero is a foreigner on Mars, he learns rather painfully that his human powers enable him to do things in their atmosphere that he couldn't accomplish at home. The action often bogs down in complications, and it appears that some of the plot doesn't reach the screen. Further, the leads lack charisma. Taylor Kitsch supplies sufficient brawn, but he acts like a wooden Johnny Depp, while Lynn Collins looks like she has spent more time in the gym than a science laboratory. Dominic West fares best with his arrogant portrayal of an enemy bent on destruction, but you never really hate him with any passion. He is more of a pawn of the Therns. The enigmatic Therns are an irritating bunch of opportunists with a nasty habit of shape-shifting into other characters.

Altogether, despite it picturesque settings, "John Carter" emerges as a predictable yarn that delivers few revelations.