‘John Carter’ is a hollow, silly mess.

To me, there is nothing more satisfying than a great sci-fi experience.  When a world beyond our own is fully realized it is the purest form of cinematic escapism.  Star Wars and Blade Runner built timeless worlds on the backs of wonderfully realized characters.  Their humanity resonated and carried the audience to the new frontier. Unfortunately,  John Carter forgot this essential piece.

No amount of whiz-bang special effects and technical wizardry can mask the fact that the world of Mr. Carter is as boring as his name.

john-carter-poster-405x600John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a disheveled confederate captain who has defected and is awaiting prosecution from his Union captors.  Carter claims he has found a cave lined with gold but of course his one-track mind must be broken–war can do that to a man you see.

When Carter escapes he leads the soldiers (lead by a gravelly Brian Cranston) on a wild horse chase (a wonderful homage to John Ford) across the barren desert.  The cave has a bit more in it than gold and before Carter can say Ulysses S. Grant he’s transported to Barsoom (or Mars for us earthlings.)

The story on the red planet veers into Phantom Menace territory quickly as Carter is captured by the Tharks—a native race of 4-armed green giants—who enjoy indulging in power trips and Native American stereotypes.  He and Thark nation find themselves caught in a power struggle between two humanoid races battling for Mars supremacy and it’s up to them to save the day, get Mr. Carter the girl and figure out why he can breathe so easily on a different planet.

If the plot sounds exhausting that’s because it is.  Director Andrew Stanton attempts to liven up the proceedings with several action set-pieces but (with the exception of a great early aerial battle) these are often cut so incoherently it’s hard to see who is attacking what.  Because of this, John Carter lacks any real momentum.

And that momentum is sorely needed because these actors are best seen running and jumping not standing and talking.  Taylor Kitsch is an actor who’s subdued surfer persona worked well on Friday Night Lights but on Mars comes off as lazy and tired.  Kitsch has the physicality for the role and is convincing slicing and dicing but when he’s asked to deliver dialogue its unintentional comedy at its finest.  His performance is the cinematic equivalent of a dog staring at his ball: You know how badly he wants it but beyond that desire there’s not a lot going on upstairs.

The rest of the cast acquits themselves fairly well with the standout being the Princess of Mars (Lynn Collins.)  Luckily, Stanton doesn’t frame her as the damsel in distress but rather an uber-smart, sword wielding ass-kicker.  Collins also has a knack for the silly dialogue, delivering it with the necessary tongue-in-cheek gravitas.

Stanton, who directed the animated classics Finding Nemo and Wall-E, lets the effects take center stage in the climactic scenes.  This would have worked if the film had any stakes.  In his previous work Stanton developed deep, interesting characters that we cared about.  In John Carter he’s abandoned what made him great and we’re left with a lot of really pretty cardboard cut-outs.

Also the 3D stinks.

 John Carter opens today in theaters everywhere.