‘John Carter’ (2015) review: Where the West meets the Red Planet

Editor’s note: This review originally was published March 9, 2012.

‘John Carter’ loses its soul with its blockbuster appeal

“John Carter,” in all intents and purposes, is designed to look like a blockbuster. And for the most part, it pulls that off with stunning success. The problem, though, is the same people who hit that lofty goal also tried to accomplish another: to imbue “John Carter” with a feeling of scrappy pleasure, a magic and wonderment normally found in pulp novels or the best B-movies. On this front, Disney’s “John Carter” sadly falls short.

Coming off as a frenetic jumble of genres both familiar and ancient, “John Carter” gives new definition to the phrase “mash-up.” There are pulls and plugs from a multitude of sources, giving you a feeling you may have seen this movie once (or twice) before. But, in all fairness, “John Carter” was here first. It was here first about a century ago. It’s not director Andrew Stanton’s (“WALL-E”) fault the source material — written in a magazine serial by Edgar Rice Burroughs — has been plundered by popular directors such as George Lucas and James Cameron.

in “John Carter,” Stanton and writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon recreate the first book of Burroughs’ “Barsoom” series (collectively known as “A Princess of Mars”), pull bits and pieces from later books and create a two-hour narrative that at once seems too long and rushed. The issue: Burroughs was not known for writing a concise plot. His story lines jump as far around as his titular character does, and it could be said that was the point. Burroughs sought to construct as many fantastical adventures as he could, and Stanton just followed that lead. It gives the distinct feeling you’re missing something while you may have been shown things of little significant value.

Our story begins on Earth, where our eponymous hero stoically enters the scene. A jaded Civil War veteran, John (Taylor Kitsch) wants nothing to do with the army, or war for that matter. It doesn’t stop him, though, from being transported into another internecine conflict. Waking up in the desolate landscapes of Barsoom (Mars), John soon realizes he has fallen right into another war, this time between the two city-states of Helium and Zodanga. The cities have been warring for millennia, though it’s not explained why. Regardless, it happens to come across as very human-like nature, and that may be in part because they look just like humans. Sans the blood-red markings. (Well, even then thanks to human tattoos.)

And it can’t be a civil war without a set portraying the Native Americans, this time represented by the green, four-armed humanoids known as Tharks. They serve as the local savages trying to stem the tide against a technologically superior foe. And though the battle between Helium and Zodanga comes closer to something out of “Stargate,” there’s plenty of elements that come straight from Earth’s 1950s epics. (There are a lot of togas on Mars.)

Carter, normally shirtless and covered in some type of blood, befriends some noble Tharks (voiced by Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton) thanks in large part to his ability to leap over tall buildings in a single bound. (Bone density and gravity and whatnot.) He even acquires a lovable Martian dog/monster/thing. He of course falls in love with a Helium princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a woman capable of wielding a sword and explaining the mysteries of flight to John Carter. He fights to protect those for whom he cares, very “Dances with Wolves” style.

There’s plenty more (two hours is a long time): cast, CGI, alien creatures, dialogue (both good and bad). It’s a pot of silliness, made even more so thanks to some genuine grandeur and intentionality.

But for all its silly faults, no one can say “John Carter” wasn’t a visual treat. Touched by Pixar’s magic, and brought to life with Michael Giacchino’s energetic score, “John Carter” is nothing short of lavish. Maybe too lavish. You know the movie isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but with all the attention paid here, you end up laughing at the movie, rather than with it. A conundrum, you can be assured.

Even then, “John Carter” is nothing if not charming. You are meant to have fun, and Stanton does his best with wit scattered throughout the plot and solid performances by most of the cast. It’s hokey and over the top, a bit too much and somehow emotionally captivating.

You’ll leave the theater wanting to know what happens next. There’s worse that can be said about a movie.

Three Martian stars out of five.

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