Behold, the Mushroom of Souls
Grade: B –
Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr. 12 min.
At one point in John Carter, the titular earthling-turned-interplanetary freedom fighter impales—using his entire body—a giant, snarling white ape-like beast. Emerging out the back of the monster, he stands before an audience of green humanoids gathered to watch the blood sport. As Carter, covered in the creature’s cobalt-colored entrails, begins to address the motion-capture, computer-generated crowd, the echoes of Avatar are drowned out only by the rousing call-to-arms Carter bellows in his role like a Martian William Wallace.
First appearing in a 1912 magazine serial, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series has influenced generations of science-fiction, including Star Wars, Superman, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. However, any earnest attempt to render a feature film adaptation of Burrough’s creation has floundered for nearly 80 years. The delay is particularly surprising considering the decades of big screen adapatations that Burroughs’ Tarzan character has enjoyed. Indeed, the path to bring this John Carter to fruition began in 2004 and traversed at least three directors before ending with Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and WALL-E).
Carter (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights) is an ex-Confederate soldier from Virginia turned surely Arizona golf prospector circa 1868. Stumbling across a mystical medallion held by omnipotent extraterrestrial being, Carter finds himself teleported to Mars, called Barsoom by its natives. There, less gravity gives Carter superhuman strength and leaping ability, skills that are noticed by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe via motion capture), leader of a race of quadruple-armed, horned humanoids called the Tharks.
Once elevated to warrior status by the Tharks, Carter embarks on a mission to quell the conquest aspirations of Sab Than (Dominic West), who aided by a species of all-seeing shape-shifters called the Therns (headed by Mark Strong). Moreover, Carter becomes smitten with Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of a realm named Helium, and spends most of the film both saving her and trying to spare her from going through with a prearranged marriage to Sab.
But, the final, $250 million, 3-D special effects laden spectacle is, well, a mixed bag. Although adapted largely from A Princess of Mars, Burroughs’ first John Carter novel, Stanton plus screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon draw elements from throughout Burroughs’ 11-part Barsoom book series. As a consequence, the plot—already saddled with a cavalcade of obtuse proper names—quickly becomes mired in its narrative muddle.
Kitsch is a capable lead, but while Texas native Collins is a suitable beauty, her acting is as uneven as the British accent that she and—for some mysterious reason—every English-speaking space race in the history of cinema speaks.
The best parts of John Carter are observing the hero’s discovery of both his alien surroundings and his otherworldly powers, along with the repeated flashes whimsy that show the film knows not to take itself too serious. Stanton confirms his skill behind the camera, but as an animated director his acumen in conjuring a digitized universe—which serves him well here for the most part—does not behoove fleshing out the flesh-and-blood characters and other live-action elements. The film’s broad, complicated canvas requires an accessible grandeur that few directors can channel.
The audience yearns for fleeting moments of recognition and clarity, such as a monologue from Strong’s Matai Shang in which he not only deciphers Carter’s home state from hearing his Southern accent but describes the Therns’ eons-long mission of meddling in the affairs of others beings. Otherwise, John Carter is handsome yet hectic, a standard-issue sword and sorcery flick set against an expensive, eye-popping backdrop. Although Burroughs’ stories might be the Rosetta Stone of modern-day sci-fi, the film is like Prince of Persia if it was written by L. Ron Hubbard.