||The centenary of the first of Edgar Rich Burroughs' Barsoom novels—the outer-space series featuring John Carter, the earth man who became a Martian warlord—would seem an auspicious moment to release a big-budget Hollywood movie based on the character. Carter, after all, might be a distant second to Tarzan among Burroughs he-men, but he’s still miles ahead of the author’s other pulp heroes Carson Napier (of the Venus stories) and David Innes (of the Pellucidar series), and fans still hold the protagonist of the books featuring him in pretty high regard.
Their celebration over the long-awaited translation of Carter onto the big screen, however, is likely to last no more than twenty or thirty minutes into this action-packed but curiously inert big-budget misfire from Andrew Stanton, the director of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” who moves from pure animation territory into mixed live-action/CGI fare with less than auspicious results. “John Carter” is endlessly busy and strenuous, a breathless series of captures and escapes, but for all the visual pizzazz and gee-whiz athleticism it’s a bloated bore.
The script by Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon is largely based on the first of Burroughs' Barsoom tales, the 1912 “A Princess of Mars,” though there are tweaks to the source. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Confederate Civil War veteran, born in Virginia; in this telling he’s haunted by a family tragedy which sends him west in search of riches, and while trying to escape forced service in the US cavalry against the Apache, he finds the cave where he’s whisked off to Mars. His unintended transfer, we learn, is here the result of an accidental encounter with one of the Therns, a spectral race of shape-shifters headed by Metai Shang (Mark Strong), who intervene in the affairs of planets to guide the rise and fall of their civilizations. (This is an expansion of what one finds in the Barsoom books, where the Terns don’t actually appear until the second volume, “The Gods of Mars.”)
In any event, on Mars, which the natives call Barsoom, Carter is taken captive by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, going the motion-capture route), the enlightened leader of the tall, green, four-armed Tharks, who prizes the “white worm” for his ability to jump over tall mountains in a single bound, the effect of the planet’s lesser gravity (a circumstance that also enhances his punching power). After some time with them Carter escapes with Sola (Samantha Morton), the rebellious daughter of Tars, and beautiful Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of the humanoid Red Martian city of Helium, who’s fled her home to avoid a forced marriage to the brutal Sab Than (Dominic West), general of a rival Red Martian clan, to whom the Therns have given a weapon powered by the mysterious blue ninth ray in order that he can conquer the planet. (The Thern purpose in all this is a scheme to force the marriage and then kill Dejah in order to lead to a planetary catastrophe—but in actuality it’s so complicated and ill-explained as to be pretty much incomprehensible.)
Anyhow, what follows is a chain of adventures in which Carter is repeatedly captured, only to escape again and again until he rouses the hitherto neutral Tharks to join him in a climactic raid to prevent the wedding of Dejah Thoris and Sab Than, and thereby foil the Therns’ nefarious plan (and win the princess for himself). In the process he saves the rule of Tars Tarkas against his cruel Thark rival Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) after a bruising arena battle with two gigantic white apes.
This might all sound impossibly convoluted—and I haven’t even mentioned the wraparound story, set in 1881, in which young Edgar is summoned to the estate of his dead uncle John to read his journal and help him return to Mars—but expect for the role of the Therns, it’s actually not all that difficult to follow. Unfortunately, it’s also not much fun. The movie becomes little more than an orgy of not-very-attractive visual effects (one of the worst involving the dog-like Calot, a big beast that latches onto Carter) and badly-choreographed battle scenes, some on the ground and others airborne in curiously rickety-looking ships with cannons aboard. Apart from that, the general décor, the work of production designer Nathan Crowley, a small army of art directors, set decorator Paki Smith and costumer Mayes C. Rubeo, strikes one as a clumsy hybrid of ideas cobbled together from old Roman epics and Mike Hodges’ 1980 “Flash Gordon.” Mention of the latter movie points up two other deficiencies of “Carter.” For one thing, the movie sorely lacks a sense of humor; apart from some puerile stuff surrounding the Calot and a dumb repeated gag in which the Tharks mistakenly call John Virginia, it’s a pretty joyless affair. For another, the picture is being presented in the almost obligatory 3-D format, which so mutes the colors that the images are unpleasantly drab and dingy. (And frankly, in this case the positives brought by the format are modest.) And Michael Giacchino’s score is bombastic without being at all memorable.
The CGI cacophony doesn’t leave much room for the actors (with stop-motion performers Dafoe, Morton and Church faring especially poorly, of course), but the movie might have had more energy with a more charismatic lead than Kitsch, who certainly looks the part physically but doesn’t register much beneath the handsome surface, even in the flashbacks to his earthly familial tragedy (which bear an odd resemblance to another pulpish misfire, 1981’s notorious “Legend of the Lone Ranger”). Collins is wooden even when Dejah abandons her royal robes for fighting leather and wields a sword almost as well as Carter, and in the villainous roles West and Strong take different roads, the former chewing the scenery and the latter embracing a godly impassivity (though any consistency he might have achieved is undermined by the constant shape-shifting). Even as fine an actor as Ciaran Hinds, as the ruler of Helium, is trapped amid the lumbering CGI debris. (With this and the recent “Ghost Rider” sequel, he’s really taking slumming for a paycheck too far.)
Among recent CGI pulp extravaganzas, “John Carter” falls somewhere between “Immortals,” which at least had some striking images, and such stuff as the reboot of “Conan the Barbarian” and the remake of “Clash of the Titans,” both of which had almost no redeeming features. Anyone hoping that it might lead to a franchise embracing Burroughs’ other Barsoom books is fooling himself; you might as well look forward to a follow-up to “The Prince of Persia.”