I first came across John Carter in grade school in a “Weird Worlds” DC Comics adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. It was suitably weird, slightly hokey, occasionally thrilling and very hard to follow.
Not much has changed.
The blockbuster adaptation “John Carter” is a big, wild movie that is more provocative than involving. Looking like it spent every penny of a $250 million budget, the film clearly hopes to replicate the style and success of “Avatar.” And like the all-time box-office champ, the picture meanders for a long while before delivering a rousing third act.
“John Carter” starts off sloppy with a melange of narration and flashbacks. The shaggy, affluent Carter (Taylor Kitsch) emerges in 1881 New York before succumbing to illness. It’s up to his nephew, fledgling writer Burroughs (Daryl Sabara of “Spy Kids”), to uncover his secrets.
The story cuts to a post-Civil War outpost in 1868 where insubordinate Capt. Carter is being recruited by his former Union adversaries to fight Apaches in the expanding Southwest. But a freak discovery teleports the dashing pacifist to Barsoom — or as it’s called around these parts: Mars.
After the initial slapstick scenes of Carter discovering he has amazing powers in decreased gravity — talk about “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” — he truly comprehends his predicament when encountering the Tharks. The members of this 12-foot tall, four-armed, tusked warrior race (as with “Avatar,” they’re CGI creations with movie star voices) reluctantly adopt the outsider. Plus, his abilities come in handy when dealing with the warring humanoid tribes of Helium and Zodanga.
Enter the Helium princess (a robust Lynn Collins), who is being forced to marry a galactic thug (Dominic West) because “a wedding will save the city.” At the root of all the political conflict — and the most impenetrable aspect of director/co-writer Andrew Stanton’s tale — is a race called the Therns. Led by reliably icy actor Mark Strong (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”), these immortals get their jollies by orchestrating planetary chaos — or something like that.
Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) nearly sorts the sticky plot out by the finale. A shrewd epilogue also justifies some of the perplexing early choices.
Kitsch, best known for TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” proves able to front a movie. The Canadian is as reliable as “Avatar” lead Sam Worthington, with a mix of good looks, brawn and generic heroism. He also displays a glint of comedic timing that audiences might miss if blinded by the reflections from all those swords and hovering vehicles.
But the real star of “John Carter” is the production design by Nathan Crowley (“The Dark Knight”). It’s problematic crafting an alternate world that is not necessarily more advanced than ours. But Crowley presents bold variations on weapons, transportation, housing and the ecosystem. Part desert nomad, part steampunk, the design is striking. And it helps distract from the terrible wigs and henna facial tattoos of the Heliumites (Heliumers? Heliumists?).
“John Carter” reputedly holds the record for the longest time a movie spent in development: Talks began in 1931 when the initial book of the series, “The Princess of Mars,” was proposed to be the first-ever animated feature. (Test footage from this can be found onYouTube
It’s tough to assert that “John Carter” is well worth the wait. But at least parts of it are.3-D OR NOT 3-D
The otherworldly designs and off-world terrains of “John Carter” offer oodles of eye candy, so the 3-D only serves as a distraction. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel (the “Star Trek” reboot) is busy enough already without having to maneuver through an extra layer of visual clutter.WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING • Connie Ogle, Miami Herald:
“There is time travel and space travel and a big friendly lizard that acts like a dog — and apparently a place to buy hair extensions. And here’s the thing: Despite all this, ‘John Carter’ manages to be a ridiculous amount of fun, even if you are immune to the charms of Taylor Kitsch (‘Friday Night Lights’) running around in what amounts to a stylish loincloth.”
•Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter:
“This Disney extravaganza is a rather charming pastiche, if perhaps not one with sufficient excitement and razzle-dazzle to justify the reported $250 million production budget. Neither classic nor fiasco, the film will likely delight sci-fi geeks most of all, but there’s enough here for general Disney audiences as well.”
•Lou Lumenick, New York Post: “Interminably long, dull and incomprehensible, ‘John Carter’’ evokes pretty much every sci-fi classic from the past 50 years without having any real personality of its own.”