John Carter: Of Leapers and Lizard Folk

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.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier . . . Oh My!

First you notice the sepia-toned look of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s as if the director borrowed the Steven Soderbergh’s color palette. And next the characteristic camera move, a slow zoom through washed-out streets, down anonymous corridors, over worn-out faces.

Agent George Smiley has been pulled from retirement to investigate the allegation that there’s a mole in The Circus. (For those who don’t speak spy-ish, that’s British Intelligence.) Smiley peers at each of his suspects in order to discover his hidden weakness, his secret truth. And in the end, the revelation of those secrets seems no more important than the peering itself. “I’m innocent, within reason,” one character says, capturing all the ambiguity of the Cold War era that gave birth to so many of the novels of John le Carré. “Innocent within reason” implies guilty within reason, too. What le Carré knows is that great evil comes into our lives not with grand gestures but with baby steps.

Gary Oldman is a worthy successor to Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the imperturbable British functionary who may have more going on behind that blank stare than he lets on. Oldman is the kind of actor who can express a whole range of emotions with no more than a millimeter’s elevation of an eyebrow. In fact, you couldn’t ask for a better cast for a movie, with Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, David Dencik, and a number of other excellent British poker faces. This is not the James-Bond world of evil geniuses going after world domination. It’s the world of petty bureaucrats with cracked principles and battered hearts. The spaces of their world smell of thwarted ambition, tawdry secrets, and cheap compromise. All of which make the movie much more interesting than the cartoonish adventures of Bond, James Bond.

But . . . I have to say . . .can’t help it, really: part of me wanted a little more gunplay, maybe a garroting or two. And maybe a teense more clarity. Is that so wrong?

On the other hand, TTSS is a movie that, like its characters, plays its cards close to the vest, so close that it’s not always clear, even when the cards have been laid down, just who’s holding what hand. Which is probably as clear-sighted a picture of the murky world of true espionage as any we can get.