Misstep on Mars

A lead-actor dud dooms the epic 'John Carter' to failure

This year is the centennial of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars.

It wasn't the first book about visitors to or from the angry red planet; that was probably Two Planets by Kurd Lasswitz, published in 1888. And it probably isn't the first Mars novel most people can name; that would be H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, released in 1898. But Burroughs' book plays an important role in the fictionalization of Mars, and in science fiction more generally.

Given its pedigree, it is surprising that this is the first time Hollywood has endeavored to bring the story to the silver screen. Well, real Hollywood, anyway: In anticipation of this release, the schlock-meisters at The Asylum put out a direct-to-DVD telling of A Princess of Mars starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords. It's the same company responsible for Snakes on a Train and Transmorphers, for whatever that's worth.

Retitled John Carter, the 3-D space epic begins in sunny Arizona. That's where Civil War veteran Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has migrated to search for gold in the 1870s. In the cave where he believes he'll find his mother lode, he encounters and shoots an odd, bald being who speaks a funny language and wears a glowing medallion, which Carter instinctively grabs before the room goes blindingly bright. The next thing he knows, Carter wakes up in the desert—but not the one he was just in. He can jump tens if not hundreds of feet in the air. And he sees tall, green people.

A curiosity to the tribe at first, he eventually wins the Tharks over with his acrobatic fight maneuvers. (Carter's leaping ability has something to do with gravity and bone density.) Along the way, he rescues a princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), and finds himself in the middle of a turf war between her people and some heavily armed marauders.

This film is the live-action debut of director Andrew Stanton, one of Pixar's golden boys. It would seem like a great experiment for someone with his background, because his imagination has quite a bit of room to explore. The Mars he creates—Barsoom, to the locals—is believable enough. We know it doesn't really look like a desert in the American Southwest, but it works for the story. The Tharks are the next step in Avatar computer animation; the eyes are becoming a little more believable every year, and that's the key to creatures like this. The battles are a little more Michael Bay than they need to be, but they're not so jarring that they don't belong.

Casting for this movie, however, was a problem. Collins is serviceable as Dejah Thoris. She looks great, but doesn't burn with that fire the role demands, given the consequences if anything should happen to the princess. Kitsch, even in 3-D, is a terribly one-dimensional actor. He's flat-out wrong here. He's hard enough to buy as a Civil War soldier, but as the savior of Mars? Forget it.

Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy Jones runs through the bazaar in Egypt, and he's too winded to fight the guy twirling his scimitar, so he just pulls out his revolver and shoots him? You could believe a guy like Harrison Ford doing that in a moment. Nothing at all about Kitsch says he's the right guy for this job. He doesn't have the stature, the charisma or the physical tools. Dwayne Johnson, maybe, but not Kitsch.

The supporting cast, oddly enough, is pretty good. Dominic West, the ever-brilliant Mark Strong and Ciarán Hinds give the film a gravity it lacks with Kitsch, regardless of his bone density. But anytime you're looking to the supporting cast to lead, you know something's askew. And with Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, Mars is definitely off its axis.