First things first, “John Carter” only seems like a derivative rehash of “Star Wars,” “Superman,” “Indiana Jones,” “Avatar,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” and every other interplantary adventure put on screen. What isn’t borrowed these days? But the fact is, they all trace back to the roots of “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose pulp-fiction serials of “Barsoom” debuted exactly a century ago. The first volume, “A Princess of Mars,” is the basis for “John Carter,” but the film’s title has half of Burroughs’ eleventh and last installment, “John Carter of Mars.” Retitled to supposedly appeal to a broader audience and to make sense of the hero’s journey, it still doesn’t make a damn difference, but no title should determine the overall quality of a picture either.
Now, being trumpeted as the first big summer blockbuster in March, Disney’s “John Carter” is just a grand, moderately enjoyable, old-fashioned fantasy-adventure. In that regard, it’s a pleasant surprise, evoking a spirit of Saturday matinee serials, but never as fun as it should be. And since any movie based on a written story (let alone eleven volumes) should be made accessible to even the uniniated, this $250-million tentpole doesn’t quite get over that expository hump. However, one thing is for sure, it is more lovingly created than just cynically thrown together like an onslaught of noisy effects.
The plot (oh boy, where to begin?) traces the titular John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a weary Civil War veteran from Virginia. Refusing to help Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) and the Army in the war against the Apaches, Carter escapes and goes prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory before he gets ahold of a medallion that teleports him into Barsoom (the “true name” for red planet Mars). He’s disoriented at first, until testing out his newfound powers to leap high in the air from the planet’s low gravity. From there, John Carter is thrown into an ongoing war between the Red Martian cities of Helium and Zodanga. He becomes the prisoner of the tall, green, six-limbed Tharks, led by Jeddak chieftain Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe through motion-capture), his daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton), and Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Meanwhile, the humans of both cities are battling for control of Barsoom. Helium’s Princess Dajah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is arranged to marry Zodangan leader Sab Than (Dominic West) by her father (Ciaran Hinds), but Sab has devious plans, egged on by a shape-shifting Thern named Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Will Carter return to Earth or stay for the betterment of Barsoom? If that summary wasn’t dense enough, all of this is bookended by Carter’s nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), in 1881, receiving the sad tidings of his uncle’s death and being left to read his journal.
Following his beautiful animated efforts, including 2003’s “Finding Nemo” and 2007’s “WALL-E,” writer-director Andrew Stanton works on an epic scale for his live-action film debut. Judging by the film’s pulpy look, it’s clear where the reported $250-million budget went because it’s hard to feel anything or care about everything on screen. Burroughs’ story was adapted to the screen by Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, and director Stanton in a lumbering screenplay of lackadaisical, convoluted storytelling that desperately warrants a glossary and instills fear into viewers that there will be a comprehensive exam afterwards. Intricate to a fault, the story is structurally simple, but feels like an airless vacuum that gets heavily mired in the details of otherwordly hokum. All of the mythology and jargon is hard to keep track of and will go through one’s ear and out the other. The modus operandi for this pulpy fantasy-adventure is cramming as much exposition into our heads as possible.
While “John Carter” obviously fails in conveying its busy breadth of story during a bloated running time, it’s the look and the inhabitants of Barsoom that make the film watchable. Rather than polishing the narrative and giving a nip-and-tuck to the 132 minutes, Stanton at least creates a wondrous exotic world. For a movie so slathered in CGI, Barsoom is so seamlessly realized by bright, tactile imagery. Even Dan Mindel’s cinematography does service to the dusty locations in the wraparound scenes, which look right out of the Old West. Thankfully, Stanton uses his Pixar experience to bring some spatial geography to the action scenes, Carter’s battle with giant white apes in a “Gladiator”-like colosseum being a real highlight. And most of the time, the humans and non-humans actually seem to be sharing the same space.
Taylor Kitsch, the rugged star of TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” is virile and handsome, but also pretty dull and wooden like a 31-year-old Keanu Reeves, as the half-naked super-man. The unrecognizable Lily Collins has the most heart and gravitas as Princess Dejah, a science-smart swordswoman with killer gams and piercing blue eyes. Through performance-capture animation, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church make the most of their distinct voices as the green-skinned aliens, but the Tharks are undistinguishable, resembling George Lucas’ Jar Jar Binks. And whenever there’s a Big Bald Bad, there’s Mark Strong, always reliably sly as the shape-shifting Matai Shang. Hands down, though, there’s a pretty great sidekick in the form of Woola, a blobby frog- and dog-like creature that zips around at lightning speed.
For all the eye-popping visuals, “John Carter” still never really sweeps you up in John Carter’s journey. Some welcome flashes of humor help a bit, but an attempt at pathos is reduced to a sequence of parallel editingâ€”Carter’s wife and daughter being slain in the war is intercut with the hero slaying some beastsâ€”that the stakes of the Helium-Zodanga war fall short of being compelling. With Stanton proving himself a master of tight visual storytelling with his animated efforts, it’s a disappointment that his foray into live-action grows tedious and comes up empty as an emotional experience. In toto, while not the disastrous flop it’s being berated to be in many critical circles, “John Carter” is just middling entertainment that had much more potential.
132 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +
Grade: B –