LYNN COLLINS AND TAYLOR KITSCH IN JOHN CARTERTharks don't flyJohn Carter
, a $250 million 3D sci-fi megamovie from Disney, is based on the much-borrowed-from 11-volume Barsoum novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it has an incomprehensible plot, an appealing, hunky star (appropriately called Taylor Kitsch), and such talented actors as Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe and Cierán Hinds. It is really a surprise to see Hinds here and he looks pretty awkward in red painted-on tattoos and kitsch (sorry, Taylor) raiments that include (I'm cribbing from the London Telegraph
) "bleach-blond boy-band wig and ostrich-feather shoulder pads." But I guess the paycheck was good. And so was it no doubt for the likes of Thomas Haden Church, Dominic West, the detective from "The Wire," and Mark Strong. And for the distinguished novelist Michael Chabon. These are just extras, maybe, since much of the big bucks probably went to the CGI and motion-capture, which are quite impressive, except that many of the critters are ludicrous. Parts of this epic, like Star Wars
, is played for comic relief, like the woola, a monstrous dog-like creature that looks like a bull frog. This is, I assume, a movie for nine-to-thirteen-year-olds. But most of the Saturday afternoon crowd were adults, paying rapt attention, and laughing, whether they were supposed to or not.
I come neither to bury nor to praise this movie. I can only describe it as it seemed, an intermittently fun and appealing, occasionally awesome, sometimes strange but also over-familiar and yawn-inducing product. The yawns come eventually, as they do for many contemporary screen extravaganzas when things gets too silly and too complicated and it all goes on too long. And two hours and twelve minutes is definitely too long for a movie that seems to thumb its nose at continuity from the first minutes -- from the very concept. And jump cuts are the prevailing style.
The concept. Which is what? An antiquated one, something like "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," only this time a Virginian Civil War Confederate Army captain recruited to play a key role in a war on another planet. A young man called Edgar Rice Burroughs inherits his uncle John Carter's estate, including his diary. Then we're plunged through the diary into the life of John Carter. He appears to be a war vet with PTSS-induced violence issues. Then John Carter meets up with a bald guy from another planet and poof! He's on Mars.
Only it's called Barsoum, which sounds like the Egyptian word for the clover they feed to donkeys. This would not be a problem for an Edgar Rice Burroughs reader, which obviously I'm not. But it seemed funny to hear the word "Barsoum" coming up as the name of a planet. It's one of a lot of crazy names, like Tars Tarkas (Lynn Collins), Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), Sab Than (Dominic West), Kantos Kan (James Purefoy), and so on. Fun, really: but who can remember them? And the long, thin E.T.-like critters called Tharks (from whom evidently James Cameron got his Na'vi for Avatar
) who at first seem to populate Barsoum (there turn out to be reddish humans too, some of them babes) talk gibberish, which is subtitled (sans caps). Then all of a sudden John Carter starts to "understand" them: and they start speaking English.
John Carter is obviously a budding superhero in Virginia from the way he keeps decking people and breaking out of prison. But he really comes into his own on Barsoum -- he's one of those guys who just needed another planet -- when after some clumsy starts he discovers he can jump a hundred yards in the air, and snap off pieces of metal as if they're cheap plastic. He truly comes into his own, though, when he takes his shirt off and starts wearing leather. Obviously John Carter is the great white man come to save the good critters and trounce the baddies. But why and how and which critters are which is something I lost track of. I did learn one thing, though, because it was a point repeated more than once: Tharks don't fly.
They gave this $250 million epic to Andrew Stanton to direct, his first non-animated feature, which might seem preposterous, till you learn that he co-directed Finding Nemo
and directed WALL·E
. I don't think anything that goes wrong with John Carter
is Stanton's fault. He manages some grand scenes. It's just that this material is inherently pulp silliness.John Carter
was released March 2, 2012 in the US, UK, and many other countries. A sequel, John Carter: The Gods of Mars
, is scheduled for 2014.