This wobbly adaptation of an Edgar Rice Burroughs literary series is so awful they should have called it Jimmy Carter. Transplanted by a medallion through a portal to Mars, a Civil War veteran who fought on the wrong side (which is never explained) finds himself amongst various creatures with swords, metal airships and blue blood. If that sounds over the top, wait until you hear the dialog as you see flashes of everything from Dune to Avatar. Disney’s mega-budget John Carter simply has no discernible reason to exist; it implodes from the beginning and caves in on itself with bad writing, directing, acting and unintentionally hilarious scenes.
When a wedding administered by a priestess of some kind includes the line, “drink now of this holy water and be wet,” the only thing you want to drink is a vodka and tonic and be freed from this ill-conceived vehicle, which probably retains little resemblance to stories by the creator of Tarzan the ape man. The studio that bears Walt Disney’s name, which released last year’s worst movie, continues to betray its namesake with heaping helpings of bland, uninspired stuff made of what someone thinks most people presumably want. Disney ceded storytelling to Marvel Comics. This is what’s left.
It’s not the actors’ fault. The cast does what it can with laughable lines – Ciaran Hinds (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), Dominic West (300) and Mark Strong (Robin Hood) are wasted – though the leading actors are poorly directed. As the title character, Taylor Kitsch (that’s his name) is as flat as a piece of cardboard and just as interesting. His love interest, a princess played by Lynn Collins, reminded me of Minnie Driver costumed like Cher. She overemotes while he underemotes and, lacking a decent motivation to care about either character, they come together like a couple of caricatures in a desert-themed heavy metal music video. There’s no motive or center to John Carter. Everything happens in agonizingly long episodic fragments that get linked, not integrated, in transitions that feel like someone’s unlucky duty.
John Carter opens with the Confederate soldier being zapped ala Stargate to Mars, Barsoom as it’s known here, and clashing with a tribe of mystical, primitive beings that reminded me of Gungans (none as annoying as Jar Jar Binks) in one of the Star Wars movies. Carter’s sole ability seems to be his gravitationally advantaged capacity for jumping and there is no sense of mystery about his character. He jumps up and comes down and, when the tribalists, led by a kind chieftain, are attacked by an evil bunch that scheme to take over Mars, John Carter saves a woman who inexplicably happens to have a British accent (others do, too; still others do not) and be a princess from a place called Helium. The theme of the picture, such as there is one, is that one ought to have a cause, and that’s as far as it goes, so presumably that makes his being a Confederate OK as long as he really believes in slavery.
Factor in that one of the females has a crush on Carter, who gains the loyalty of a cute, dog-like creature, and off go the quartet – beast, alien, princess and earthling, whom some call ‘Virginia’ which adds some humor – to find the Gates of Iss to get John Carter back to where he belongs and/or spare the science-minded princess having to marry one of the power-seekers and save Mars. Without characters or worlds to care about, this movie is simply a mess. Yet John Carter travels through deserts and canyons, and somehow it improves, if only to get worse and, when a shape-shifting, omnipotent would-be Martian dictator (Strong) alternates between an old woman with hair like an undone cinnamon bun and a bony handmaiden who shoos her sisterhood away with the line, “now, gahls, off you go,” I felt like I’d been transported into The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, so mentally I gave up and just started laughing. I know people work hard on a movie, and Disney has spent millions on this film, but director Andrew Stanton, who is credited with co-writing and has had a hand in animated pictures such as Monsters, Inc., Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille) must take some of the blame, though one wonders what he thinks of the final cut. With bad lines (“it’s a trap!”) and a lead character as dull as a piece of lint, John Carter is positively generic. What began with an Edgar Rice Burroughs story series, was granted a huge budget and loaded with talent is a dog that not only won’t hunt; it never makes it out of the doghouse.