By Susan JAMES
If you want to class up a swash and swagger adventure movie, there is nothing better than surrounding your lead actors with classically trained British thespians who can go from Hamlet to Hannibal in the blink of an eye. Writer-director Andrew Stanton has followed this rule in Disney’s new blow-out, $250 million epic “John Carter,” based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. The supporting characters look great and sound important, declaiming lines like, “We have no cause; we are immortal.” But the lead actors look and sound less than epic.
Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter, a disillusioned Civil War vet with a haunted past. While prospecting in Arizona, Carter stumbles on an alien device and finds himself transported to the planet Mars, known to the natives as Barsoom. With visuals seasoned by “Cowboys and Aliens,” “The Scorpion King” and “Gladiator,” Barsoom is an endless desert planet on the verge of annihilation. A time- and space-traveling order of priests known as Therns run the Continuum, managing whatever apocalypse is currently in session among the universe’s inhabited planets. As Thern leader Matai Shang (an always convincing Mark Strong) colorfully informs Carter, “Therns have ‘no dog in the race.’” Whoever wins doesn’t really matter; all that matters is the efficiency of the management.
Up against each other on Barsoom and playthings of the Therns are two humanoid groups, the Heliumites who are good, and the Zodangans who are bad. The Heliumites live in a domed city ruled by Tardos Mors (an always strong Ciaran Hinds) together with his warrior-scientist daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). But for reasons of their own, the dogless Therns have given Sab Than (a petulant Dominic West), leader of the Zodangans, a doomsday weapon that kills by forming a web of blue lines around his arm. With his new toy, Than is on the brink of conquering the Heliumites and their city. The wily Therns convince Sab to propose a truce if Tardos Mors will agree to arrange a marriage with his daughter.
It is at this point that restless wanderer and Earth-evolved humanoid Carter suddenly appears on Mars and finds himself literally able to leap tall mountains in a single bound. Taken in by a group of local non-human tribesmen – think Jar Jar Binks with four arms and horns – Carter no sooner sees the princess then he loves the princess and takes the war to the Zodangans. He does what every hero from Lawrence of Arabia to the Scorpion King has done: He rallies the desert tribes, storms the city and takes down the evil-doers.
“John Carter” is a rousing popcorn adventure film with great special effects. It’s weakness lies in its leads Kitsch, who spends too much time channeling a broody Johnny Depp, and Texas-born Lynn Collins whose painfully posh accent just sounds wrong when set against the dulcet tones of so many authentic British actors.
Why Disney decided not to use the complete Burroughs title, “John Carter of Mars,” is a mystery. But as with so many other mysteries in this film, perhaps the answers will unfold in the sequel.
See you at the movies!