Remember when people went crazy for Pinkberry, because that whole sweet-and-tangy yogurt thing seemed so new and original? And then it turned out that Pinkberry had borrowed its shtick from Red Mango? And then people tried Red Mango, and thought, “Well, it’s good, but it tastes just like Pinkberry”?
“John Carter” is the Red Mango of science fiction. And even though Edgar Rice Burroughs’ century-old pulp novels influenced everything from “Avatar” to “Star Wars” to Superman, the movie version of those books feels like yogurt you’ve already tasted.
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We meet embittered Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he is attempting to avoid conscription into the army’s fight against the Apaches; He’d rather pursue a cave that he’s convinced is filled with treasure. When he finds it, all he winds up with is a pendant that accidentally teleports him to Mars (the locals call it Barsoom), where the lighter gravity allows Carter to leap to great heights and long distances.
Burroughs’ story (adapted to the screen by Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon and director Andrew Stanton) comes loaded with enough characters and warring tribes to merit the distribution of a glossary at the screening I attended, but it all boils down to two warring human-like races (the evil Zodangans want to crush the peace-loving Heliumites), a bunch of manipulative cosmic buttinskys known as Therns and a race of tall, be-tusked green folks (the Tharks).
Carter, of course, is fighting the bad guys, becoming a hero to the downtrodden and falling in love with the hot princess (Lynn Collins as Deja Thoris).
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Stanton comes to his live-action debut with the acclaimed “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo” under his belt, but “John Carter” lacks the sizzle that his fellow animator Brad Bird brought to “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” Stanton’s work here is competent on an epic scale; everything from the performances to the look of the film is perfectly fine, but there’s a crushing dullness to it.
The movie doesn’t lack for incident, with glider battles or secret chambers or arena fighting popping up on a regular basis, but there are almost no surprises to be found.
“Friday Night Lights” star Kitsch will be appearing in some 45 action movies over the next 12 months, and while he in no way embarrasses himself here, the role of Carter is such a generic compilation of “haunted warrior” and “reluctant hero” clichés that it’s hard for him to do anything to make the character pop.
The same goes for Collins — the brainy sexpot princess she plays became the template for any number of slinky sci-fi heroines, so there’s not much she can do to make this character feel unique.
The performance-capture animation of the Thark characters reminds us that the technology works best on animals and aliens, and Willem Dafoe’s distinctive voice makes chieftain Tars Tarkas into a memorable character. The problem comes in trying to tell the Tharks apart; they’re all tall, green, and bearing tusks from their face, but they’re generally on camera so briefly that it’s hard to distinguish one from another, with the exception of the treacherous Tal Hajus (voiced by Thomas Haden Church), who’s missing a tusk.
For all its efforts and intentions, and despite the occasional minor thrill, “John Carter” winds up being as generic and forgettable as its title.