If you ever wondered how British actors pay their mortgages, they do it by playing mostly bad guys in what used to be called “sword-and-sandal” movies, stories vaguely set in the ancient world with a mish-mash of cultural references. Truck everyone out into the desert, dress your actors in bed sheets and throw rugs, and you’ve got Hercules, Hercules Unchained, War of the Trojans, etc. But that was so long ago, right? In the 50’s? Nothing like that around anymore. Now we are too sophisticated for that nonsense. Right? Actually, this kind of nonsense is all over the place, except we might want to call the new versions “sword-sandal-and-cgi” movies. Hence John Carter and a cartload of others lookalikes that blend sci-fi, fantasy, and desert epic.
Taylor Kitsch plays Carter, a Confederate soldier who finds himself on Barsoom (Mars, to you and me) after fondling a medallion. (A word of advice to movie heroes: you’d have fewer problems if you’d just avoid all medallions. Just say no to shiny things!) Kitsch, a graduate of the James Franco school of acting, plays Carter as a mumbling introvert. But what made Kitsch a standout on TV’s Friday Night Lights doesn’t work so well in a sci-fi desert epic. Of course, I guess any one of us would be a brooder if we found ourselves suddenly transported to another planet in the middle of a civil war.
Carter first discovers that Martian gravity makes him able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. There’s a funny scene where he gets used to his new-found power. But I have to say that even in the battle scenes, the sight of the character catapulting through the sky is a wee bit comic—a wildly exaggerated version of the leaping attack of Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy.
Carter is caught by the Tharks, a barbarian race of warriors who don’t seem to care that the Zodangans, led by evil Sab Thança scenery-chewing Dominic West, are intent on wiping out the city of Helium. But Sab is no more than a puppet for the Therns, who, like all good bullies, perpetuate evil just because they can.
There are two standout actors in the movie. The first is Lynn Collins, who plays the princess-in-jeopardy as a battle-hardened warrior who makes John Carter look like a cappuccino-swilling emo-boy. The second is James Purefoy, who has a small part but who plays it with such wicked glee amidst all the solemn bombast that you wish there were more of him.
Many other fine actors fill out the cast, notably Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton. But they’re wasted on this movie, which is derivative right down to the last 1’s and 0’s of its CGI coding.
It may be true that there is no new thing under the sun, but this movie robs too freely from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar, with a dash of Stargate and a soupçon of The Iliad tossed in for good measure.
In other words, it’s now official: Hollywood no longer makes movies; it makes mash-ups.