Friday, March 9, 2012

John Carter: Thud and blunder

John Carter (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for relentless fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.9.12

What a slab of meat.

A clumsy, disorganized and bone-stupid script is the biggest problem afflicting John Carter, but Taylor Kitsch’s stiff and wooden starring performance also leaves much to be desired.

After capturing John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, right), the Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas
(center) argues the displaced Earthman's fate with a rival warrior, Tal Hajus, while
the entire tribe waits to see what will happen next.
The young actor, who made such a strong impression as a troubled high school football player on TV’s Friday Night Lights, has made a laughably poor transition to big-screen leading man. Given his much stronger work on the tube, blame must be assigned director Andrew Stanton: an accusation given greater weight by the similarly dismal acting delivered by Kitsch’s co-stars.

When even seasoned professionals such as Ciarán Hinds and Mark Strong look silly, the guy in charge clearly is at fault.

Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) is the second Pixar filmmaker to make the ambitious leap from pixels to flesh-and-blood performers, but he hasn’t done nearly as well as colleague Brad Bird, who recently brought such stylish snap to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Based on this evidence, Stanton can’t direct live actors, period.

But — as mentioned above — that isn’t this film’s worst sin. The haphazard script scarcely makes sense from one action sequence to the next; it feels as if scenes are being fabricated on the fly. Stanton and co-scripters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon have made an absolute mess of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters, not to mention the novel (1912’s A Princess of Mars, first in what became an 11-book series) on which this misfire is based.

Chabon’s participation should raise some eyebrows. You’d certainly think that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who brought us The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay would better understand how to deliver a pulpish sci-fi adventure, but the evidence here suggests otherwise.

Most cruelly, Stanton & Co. have maligned the character of Carter much the way vintage Hollywood films bungled the big-screen adaptation of Burroughs’ other, more famous creation. Tarzan — born John Clayton, later Viscount Greystoke — was a perceptive, noble and impressively intelligent man who rejected the “hypocrisy of civilization” in order to lead a purer life in the African jungle with his wife, Jane.

Needless to say, the archetypical film image of Tarzan — forever cemented by Johnny Weissmuller’s disheveled, monosyllabic jungle warrior — made a mockery of such lofty origins.

The same is true of this film’s concept of John Carter. Granted, the 19th century Southern cordiality is present, as are Carter’s virtuous instincts; he also has been granted a tragic back-story. And, to their credit, Stanton and his fellow scripters retain the clever mystery revolving around Carter’s Earthly “death” in 1881, which triggers a summons to his nephew, Edgar “Ned” Burroughs (Daryl Sabara).

But once Carter gets zapped to Mars by a mysterious amulet, he turns into little more than a Martian version of Conan the Barbarian. Scratch that: Next to Carter, Conan could have been a Rhodes scholar. What follows is pulp-style twaddle at its worst ... and even that might have been all right, if Stanton had acknowledged and embraced such a campy atmosphere.

But no: All this nonsense is intended to be taken seriously, which turns the film into the worst sort of big-screen comic book.

As an Earthman operating under Mars’ lesser gravity — only 38 percent of our own — Carter discovers that he’s much stronger and more agile, and able to (for example) pick up and hurl “heavy” objects great distances. He also can jump quite high: a feat initially handled with reasonable credibility, as Carter struggles simply to walk without falling over.

Soon, though, Carter turns into a human flea, able to out-leap even the Incredible Hulk or Superman. Stanton relies heavily on these sky-high hops and bounds, and they become increasingly ridiculous ... particularly when Carter starts carrying people.

Funny thing: Landing after leaps of such great heights never seems to do any damage. Heck, Carter’s feet don’t even make deep impressions in Mars’ desert soil. But expecting any adherence to the laws of physics clearly is a waste of time in this storyline.

The plot, such as can be discerned: After his unexpected trip to Mars — known as Barsoom, by its inhabitants — Carter is captured by the green, six-limbed, 9-foot-tall Tharks, a nomadic warrior tribe ruled by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Carter’s physical talents impress Tars Tarkas and another Thark, Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), who feeds the Earthman a magical brew that allows him to understand their language.

Elsewhere, a multi-millennial war between the evil Zodangans and the good Heliumites has reduced the planet to a near-total wasteland. Only one bastion of civilization remains: the luxurious city of Helium, ruled by the principled Tardos Mors (Hinds). His headstrong and science-minded daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), believes that she’s on the verge of a breakthrough that could end the long conflict.

Unfortunately, the power-mad Zodangan warlord, Sab Than (Dominic West), has other ideas: He offers to cease hostilities in exchange for Dejah Thoris’ hand in marriage. It’s all a trick, but the Heliumites don’t know this; Sab Than is being controlled by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), leader of the clandestine Therns — characters dragged in from one of the later books in the series — whose ultimate goal is ... well, actually, I don’t know what their ultimate goal is. Matai Shang “explains” his purpose at one point, but it makes absolutely no sense.

The Tharks, for their part, are content to sit back and let the “red warriors” destroy each other.

OK, the broad strokes are easy enough: bad guys and good guys; back-room subterfuge by even badder guys; gorgeous princess forced to wed a slimeball; noble Earthman determined to prevent such a dire fate. Naturally, Carter and Dejah Thoris dislike each other on sight; naturally, their mutual distrust thaws.

Carter’s hunky battlefield prowess doesn’t hurt, of course, and Dejah Thoris soon exhibits the same come-hither look routinely displayed by contestants on TV’s The Bachelor. And yes, we’re operating at about that level of intelligence and character depth here.

Along the way, we drown in enough technobabble and mystical gobbledygook to fuel the next dozen bad fantasies: nonsense about a “spider” symbol, the sacred “Gates of Iss” and a bright blue, ninth something-or-other that — rather oddly — never amounts to anything, despite its apparent importance to the story.

Then, too, the haphazard plot details become very irritating, from the big ones — why the Therns waste time with all this clandestine nonsense, when they clearly have the power to do whatever they wish — to little things, such as a chain that magically grows much, much longer when Carter needs to wrap it around a white furry monster during a gladiator-style battle to the death.

Therns also have the ability to morph their features and assume any identity, a detail apparently overlooked during this story’s Earthbound segments. At the risk of inserting a minor spoiler, why — for example — wouldn’t a Thern have pretended to be Carter’s lawyer or faithful butler?

Given Stanton’s pedigree, we shouldn’t be surprised that this film’s best characters are the ones that aren’t human: the CGI Tharks — which look great, I must admit — and the completely adorable Woola, a large, lizard-like calot (“dog”) with 10 legs and a mouth filled with sharp teeth. Calots are incredibly fast — even faster on land than Carter’s insanely swift skyward leaps — and Woola “adopts” the Earthman after being rescued by him.

Honestly, you’ll bond more successfully with Woola than with any of the “human” characters.

Kitsch, lamentably well named in this context, turns Carter into a kitsch clown. Collins seems to have a bit more talent, but overacts atrociously; worse yet, given her character’s scanty, desert-style garb, she doesn’t even seem comfortable as eye-candy. But her overacting isn’t a patch on West’s ham-fisted performance as Sab Than: a snarling, over-the-top portrayal that should qualify for a Golden Raspberry (Razzie) Award.

In fairness, though, nobody could persuasively deliver the bombastic, brainless dialogue these poor actors are given by Stanton, Andrews and Chabon. They’ve turned “John Carter” into the sort of snicker-laden junk that typified the worst of vintage pulp fiction, and kept its better writers ghettoized for decades.

Here we are, a century later, and Burroughs’ literary output finally has gained some respect ... and this film has set that progress back at least 40 years.

Nice going, guys.

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