DIRECTED BY Andrew Stanton
STARS Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins
Released in 2-D, 3-D, IMAX and possibly even a sepia tone version, John Carter arrives on the 100th anniversary of the title character's first literary appearance, when Edgar Rice Burroughs initially gave him life in the pages of a pulp periodical. It wasn't until after Burroughs' gargantuan success with the first few Tarzan books that Carter's chronicles were collected for a hardcover treatment (under the moniker A Princess of Mars), with more novels to follow over the ensuing decades.
James Cameron publicly declared that the John Carter canon was one of the primary inspirations for Avatar, and this new film arrives with all the multi-million-dollar CGI effects we've come to expect (or, in the case of younger audiences, demand) from our fantasy flick fodder. Yet perhaps because of the age of its source material as well as the often wide-eyed approach taken by Pixar vet Andrew Stanton (the WALL-E and Finding Nemo director, here making his live-action debut), John Carter feels more old-school than its budget would suggest. Standing somewhat apart from today's blockbusters-of-the-week, it hews more closely to such nostalgia-tinged projects as 1980's Flash Gordon and 1991's The Rocketeer, narratively simple adventure yarns that charmingly worked their straightforward delineations of good and evil into no-frills fun. A key difference, though, is that while those two movies were savvy enough to occasionally wink at themselves and even engage in a bit of camp, John Carter takes itself far too seriously, and what should be, as the barkers once said, a rip-roaring good time all too often finds itself crushed under its grim-faced grandeur.
Taylor Kitsch, who didn't make much of an impression as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, again tries to parlay his Friday Night Lights TV stardom into full-blown cinematic acceptance. He's not as bland as, say, Sam Worthington, but his performance in the leading role isn't what anyone will be recalling as they leave the theater. As in the source material, his John Carter is a Civil War-era Virginian who, through means too lengthy to explain here, finds himself transported to Mars. There, his body mass gives him extra strength, speed and agility, all of which he'll need as he becomes mired in a conflict involving the various warring factions on the Red Planet (called Barsoom by its inhabitants). For much of the time, he's the prisoner of the Tharks, a race of green-skinned creatures who, aside from the take-charge Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and the demure Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), treat him brutally. At other points, he's aligned with the human-looking residents of Helium, particularly the fearless Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Lastly, there are the Therns, whose leader (Mark Strong) won't let Carter interfere with his nefarious plans for the planet.
There are some fantastic sights in John Carter — our hero able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (hey, just like Superman!); an arena sequence more entertaining than the ones in Gladiator (admittedly, Russell Crowe didn't have the advantage of squaring off against a giant white ape); a homely yet endearing Martian dog that becomes man's best friend — but there's also a lot of overkill, with Stanton and crew often cluttering up the visuals with the deranged frenzy of George Lucas retooling his Star Wars sagas. Speaking of Star Wars, the political subplots often grow so wearying that we half-expect The Phantom Menace's Qui-Gon Jinn to show up and start discussing Trade Federation taxation. Yes, John Carter is occasionally that dull, and yet overall, it grows more interesting as it progresses, with a second half that should energize moviegoers who slumbered during the laborious first hour. Now whether that energy boost will translate into a desire to see a sequel, I cannot say.