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Adrift in retro fantasy-land 

'John Carter' lacks direction.

click to enlarge 'JOHN CARTER': Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch star.
  • 'JOHN CARTER': Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch star.

To dismiss "John Carter" as merely a story about a man who mysteriously is transported to Mars would be to pigeonhole it. Rather, it goes so much further. It's also about a man who must win over a race of bug-like barbarians, arena-battle giant rampaging monsters, woo a brainiac princess with boffo thighs and tap magic talismans to scoot his way back to Earth. Also there's a dog-monster that's pretty cute. And maybe some emotions or something, too.

OK, so it's just a mixtape of the space-barbarian tropes that have trickled into the culture since Edgar Rice Burroughs began publishing the original John Carter stories in 1912. At the time, Burroughs assumed a pen name for this pulp, underestimating his audience's thirst for tales of love and war on the red planet. By now you've seen vestiges of "John Carter" permeating the culture for decades. If you're going to enjoy this popcorn flick, then, you've got to appreciate it as a retro sci-fi fantasy, because the source material has been too thoroughly scavenged for it to feel original or even, alas, all that creative.

The action opens in the 1880s, long before the advent of Mars rovers, as the balance between two warring factions on Mars is shifting. The rapacious city of Zodanga, led by Sab Than (Dominic West) allies with a group of ethereal floating monks to rout the peace-loving denizens of Helium. The only way out appears to be for Helium's rulers to accept an arranged marriage between Than and the Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Perhaps there are better times to be accidentally transported to Mars, but it's into this messy season that a Confederate veteran named John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, of "Friday Night Lights" notoriety) is plunged when he stumbles into the wrong Arizona cave while prospecting/fleeing Union authorities.

On Mars, Carter realizes, the skimpy gravity works greatly in his favor. Even compared with the race of green, four-armed, tusked Tharks who find and apprehend him, he's ridiculously strong; he also jumps like a flea. With those particular talents Carter soon finds himself embroiled in Martian geopolitics. Mostly that involves Helium and Zodanga battling in dragonflyesque air ships, with Carter hopping from ship to ship. But even this setup gets murky. The gravest problem facing "John Carter" is the utter lack of explanation around the gravest threat facing John Carter. The celestial bad guys who equip Than with an all-destroying blue ray are the Holy Therns, who speak obliquely of what "the goddess" wants. Who are they? Where are they from? Whence do they derive their kooky, glowing magic? Dunno. They're just bad guys who help other bad guys fight the good guys. Boo, Therns.

Stylistically, there's a right way and a wrong way to carry off a poncy space world in which the prevailing accents tilt "Downton Abbey." The right way is with crackling dialogue, a fillip of cheerful near-irony in every scene and characters with crisp, distinct personalities. "John Carter," alas, opts for something else. Too many lines sound like they were inserted as placeholders and never changed; that novelist Michael Chabon, of all hacks, shares a writing credit with director Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews only adds insult to the inanity. Key characters, Carter included, come off as driven by their circumstances, instead of the other way 'round. Between the supersaturation of special effects, the paint-by-numbers dialogue and the ambiguity around key characters, "John Carter" feels like a George Lucas movie in which Lucas had too much control. Hankering for sequels, Disney may decide that one "John Carter" movie every hundred years is plenty.

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Film Details

John Carter
Rated PG-13 · 139 min. · 2012
Official Site: www.johncarterarrives.com
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writer: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Michael Chabon
Producer: Jim Morris, Colin Wilson and Lindsey Collins
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Thomas Hayden Church and Willem Dafoe

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