John Carter, the hero of the classic pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, has finally made the leap from page to screen nearly a century since his first trip to Mars was published. Sadly, the results are just as stale and yellowed as the pages of a first edition copy would be.
Based on the first book of Burroughs’ saga, “A Princess of Mars,” the movie follows Civil War veteran and overall troubled soul Carter (Taylor Kitsch), as he is mysteriously and abruptly transported to Mars. While there, he unwittingly becomes deeply involved in the conflicts of the red planet’s various inhabitants.
After being taken in by a tribe of six-limbed green Martians, Carter helps save a princess (Lynn Collins) from an unwanted arranged marriage to a vicious warlord (Mark Strong), igniting turmoil and blue bloodshed across Mars.
The movie’s first major fault is that it changes Mars – or as its inhabitants in the film call it, Bassoon – from a vibrant and complicated world in Burroughs’ books to a dull and uninspired backdrop for what is ultimately a dull and uninspired narrative.
Mars looks like any run-of-the-mill valley in the middle of Colorado or Utah and the filmmakers made the questionable decision of painting the sky a mop-bucket water shade of blue instead of red.
The production design does little to liven up the screen, with Mars’ vast city-state empires seemingly made up of leftover sets from the television series “Spartacus,” only with an extra coat of gold spray paint. The ornate but tasteless costumes also look as if they were pulled straight out of the toga party of a socialite like Kim Kardashian.
It has to be noted that the movie was screened in 3-D, which did more than its share to ruin any of the special effects’ multi-million dollar sheen. The 3-D glasses dim the picture considerably and make the vast numbers of computer-generated six-limbed Martians that inhabit the screen at one time pop out like poorly rendered sore thumbs.
It’s bad enough that the movie falls flat as a visual spectacle, but it fails almost doubly so from a dramatic perspective.
Carter literally stumbles his way onto Mars after nearly 20 minutes of clumsily edited exposition that makes the plot only more confusing by the time anything of note actually happens.
The barrage of new words and names that make up the politics of Mars and the conflicts that Carter becomes involved with are regurgitated onto the audience with the grace of a fire hydrant. This, mixed with the weak visuals, makes it incredibly hard to become invested in this new world.
The movie reportedly went through a large series of reshoots and script rewrites, with some glaring plot holes resulting in some less-than-gracefully cut down sequences. Flashbacks to Carter’s tragic backstory are sloppily added as an afterthought and are almost laughable in their forced sentimentality.
Kitsch, best known for his work on TV’s highly regarded “Friday Night Lights,” is headlining his first big movie with “Carter.” He tries his best and can definitely act, but he just seems a tad too young and smooth-faced to play the weathered Carter. Also, going on his physique alone, impressionable youths will think post-Civil War America had a gym on every corner right next to the post office.
Collins, who plays the Martian princess romantic lead, should also be given accolades for her efforts. Yet unlike Kitsch, she plays the part too old, delivering every line with a tad too much Shakespearean grandeur for the material.
Actors like Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston and Thomas Hayden Church either lend their voices to CGI Martians or appear in far-too-brief cameos. Nobody is recognizable or allowed by the freight train-like grace of the script to put any sort of personality into their parts. Cranston is a slight exception, with his entertaining portrayal of a perpetually bewildered Civil War colonel.
It’s a shame to see Burroughs’ seminal literary work chopped up by studio executives for a quick buck. “Carter” is a shoddily and hastily produced movie with seemingly one sole purpose of raising the bare minimum of revenue to generate a sequel.
Chances are that moviegoers are going to be less than enthused by this chop job, and John Carter won’t be gracing theater screens again any time soon.