Pixar Studios, the prolific Animation collective known for creating smart films that appeal to both children and adults alike, reached an artistic apex with WALL•E, a masterpiece of science-fiction that dealt with crucial themes such as adaptation, mass consumerism, and environmental trauma. The film’s mega-successful release in 2008 was met with wide critical acclaim, confirming director Andrew Stanton as an artist devoted to exploring the cinematic widescreen frame with a sense of both urgency and restraint.
The crossover appeal of WALL•E netted Stanton his first live action gig: the long gestating John Carter From Mars, based largely on A Princess of Mars, the first installment in the popular series of pulp stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now, four years later, the film finally opens wide this Friday, whittled down to a even more direct and blunt title, simply John Carter. Unfortunately, John Carter shows none of the ambition and inventiveness of Stanton’s previous efforts. In fact, this lumbering blunderbuss of a movie is so ill-conceived one would think it was made by a completely different director.
Pacing, or a lack thereof, is John Carter’s most damning flaw. Right from the beginning, as Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is magically swept away from 1860’s America to the world of Mars populated by Tharks (green aliens with four arms), flying dragonfly ships, and seductive young princesses, Stanton fails to achieve a strong sense of cohesiveness in the storytelling. The start/stops in the plot are maddening, perforated by endless exposition regarding the mythology of each culture on the red planet. The acting is so wooden and thankless, it’s as if the performers (talents like Bryan Cranston and Mark Strong) are simply reading lines from the script, laying down verbal context without any understanding of cinematic nuance.
But there’s adventure to be had, so why worry about the little things like rhythm or style? As John Carter traverses the vast desert landscape of Mars, the superfluous 3-D only blurs the potentially exciting details in the surrounding set design. The core action sequences are entirely founded on the fact that John can jump astronomic heights into the air. It’s a skill created by a combination of his bone density and lack of gravity, which enables him to defeat gigantic monsters such as the rampaging white ape, just one of the weapons used by a warrior colony to dominate surrounding cities. Still, none of the character specifics or action kinetics really matter in John Carter, since nearly the entire story is devoted to narrative set-up, one tedious dialogue-driven set-piece after the next priming the inevitable sequels to come.
When it’s not talking your ear off, John Carter feels like a hybridization of literally every manly genre (Swashbuckler, Western, Science-fiction, Fantasy). It’s clear Burroughs’ source material directly influenced everyone from George Lucas to James Cameron, but this particular cinematic adaptation of his work is so incredibly flaccid one can’t help but see it as a lazy ripoff of science fiction’s cinematic elite. Which is too bad, because Stanton the director/artist might not be able to recover from this type of disaster. Dull, monotonous, and plodding, John Carter represents Hollywood at it’s most insincere and trite, an idol to genre cinema that has no heart and soul.
John Carter opens wide, Friday March 9, 2012