Pixar alum Andrew Stanton Plus Michael Chabon Equals 'John Carter'
John Carter, the movie, has been in development for a hundred years. No wonder it's such a tangle of time, space, and narrative points of view.
John Carter, the man, is from Virginia but he was in Arizona when he wound up on Mars. That was in 1868, but our tale, as unfurled in a 2012 film based on a 1912 story, begins in 1881. And he is its protagonist, although the account is relayed through his young nephew, who will grow up to become the prolific pulp fictioneer Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Meanwhile, Burroughs' swashbuckling sci-fi serial will grow up to become a movie by the director of Wall-E, with writing help from the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and starring the heartthrob from Friday Night Lights.If the result feels ponderously derivative of Star Wars and Avatar and everything in between -- an irony given source material without which those movies might not have existed -- well, that's what a century's worth of development will do.
Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, is a former Confederate Army captain who finds himself teleported to the red planet, where lesser gravity lets him leap tall boulders, and toss them around, like a superhero. How he breathes and keeps warm is only implied; apparently there is an atmosphere on Mars, and it retains at least enough sunshine that a loincloth is all the outerwear one really needs.
Also, there are Martians. They aren't little green men but big ones, tall and reedy, with four arms each and facial tusks. With their brute exoticism and clannish codes of honor, they exude an old colonialist's idea of noble savagery, as quaintly outdated as the astronomical understanding that inspired their fictive world. But these folks are not the only residents of Barsoom, as Mars is known in the local parlance. In fact the place is all too crowded. It has humans, of sorts, as well, and the problems they bring.
Having tried to put America's War Between the States behind him, Carter inadvertently catalyzes a war between Martian city states. Theirs is more of a swords-and-sandals affair, if Lynn Collins as the lusciously bikinied scientist-warrior princess is any indication, but Carter seems up to it. And with a visual scheme so handsomely commensurate with fantasy artist Frank Frazetta's eye-popping covers for Burroughs' books, well, who wouldn't be?
The princess' father, an affably pudgy Ciaran Hinds, has arranged her marriage to a blandly villainous Dominic West, who's been terrorizing the planet with powers on loan from passive-aggressively meddling aliens led by a shorn-headed Mark Strong. And from here it gets even more tangled.
It is rather a lot for Mill Valley-based director Andrew Stanton, a Pixar mainstay here making his live-action debut, to handle. Written by Stanton, his writing partner Mark Andrews, and East Bay superstar novelist Michael Chabon, himself a longtime Martian-adventure freak (see also The McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales), John Carter ultimately comes across as smart and sleek but just not quite special enough.
Kitsch certainly has the right last name for this enterprise, and more or less the right cipher-like presence: a vessel into which 12-year-olds of all ages might project themselves. (Sometimes he seems like a poor man's James Franco, but then, sometimes, so does James Franco.) And if Kitsch's co-stars -- Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, and Bryan Cranston, variously obscured by fabricated pixels or facial hair -- seem also to fade into the scenery now and then, at least the scenery is exquisite.
Living up to reported uncertainty about whether it'll become a trilogy, John Carter feels hurried and crammed. But the movie, like the man, is lighter on its feet than seems possible. Or at least highly committed to its own pulpy panache. You want to tease it for being so earnest, but there's no time, too much to take in, so instead you just keep the fistfuls of popcorn coming.
More on Movies
Multimedia | Mar 09, 2014
A handful on online games that you can play right now -- for free. By Emily Eifler
Music | Mar 08, 2014
The Rosenthal family adds a new creative endeavor to their South of Market building. By T.J. Mimbs
Visual Arts | Mar 07, 2014
The first in a series of articles exploring the impact of new tech wealth on the Bay Area art scene. By Christian L. Frock
NPR Film | Mar 07, 2014
Wes Anderson's eighth film, set primarily in a 1930s hotel, is just as stylish, precise, and nostalgic as his past films — and far funnier. (Recommended) By Ian Buckwalter
The Do List | Mar 06, 2014
Cy Musiker and David Wiegand scout the Bay Area for things to do this coming weekend and turn up a flamenco legend, a mashup of Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, and much more!
Some of Hollywood's most popular Westerns were filmed in Spain's Tabernas Desert. Today those sets are used in Western-style theme parks for bank heists, shoot-outs and saloon shows.
In 2011, two Pennsylvania judges were sent to prison for getting paid for keeping juvenile detention centers full. A new documentary looks back at the case, interviewing kids and the judges involved.
How do you get insects to "act" on camera? Entomologist Steven Kutcher tells NPR's Scott Simon about wrangling bugs for Hollywood — and about using the insects as living paintbrushes.
What's possibly the nerdiest documentary ever made turns out to be one of the most inspiring, too. It's the inside story of the quest for a tiny, elusive particle of matter. (Recommended.)
Also on KQED.org this week ...
Women's History Month
KQED proudly celebrates the richness and diversity of the greater San Francisco Bay Area by commemorating Women's History Month.
Where's the Rain?
KQED covers news about California's drought, offers water-saving tips, and more.