After 100 years and almost as many false starts, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planet-hopping pulp hero finally leaps onto the big screen in Disney’s John Carter. He doesn’t exactly stick the landing, but the notoriously expensive production packs a lot of old-fashioned charm and manic genre-jumping into its bloated running time. It’s chaotic and uneven, but it’s rarely boring.
Essentially a Western dressed up as a space opera, John Carter hews fairly close to its source material. A Princess of Mars, originally serialized in 1912, introduced pulp fans to a hero who would eventually become known as “the Burroughs character who isn’t Tarzan”—a Civil War veteran who can astrally project himself from his earthly body to an identically buff bod on Mars. Once he’s on the red planet, he essentially becomes a superhero who can fight off hordes of four-armed aliens and jump enormous distances because, you know, gravity and bone density and—look, a giant Mars monster! It didn’t make much sense a century ago and it doesn’t make much sense now, but it hardly needs to. When you’ve got an imagination like Burroughs’ (or $250 million to spend on cutting-edge technology and an army of digital artists), you can get away with rather a lot. To the credit of the film’s writers—who include Pulitzer- and Hugo-winning novelist Michael Chabon—little effort has been made to update Burroughs’ story or give it a winking, postmodern spin.
The action kicks off in Edwardian London, where a young Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) has been summoned to tend the affairs of his recently deceased Uncle John (Taylor Kitsch), who was kind enough to leave him a journal chronicling Carter’s interplanetary adventures. We quickly jump to post-Civil War America, where Carter manages to squeeze in a number of fistfights, shootouts, and horseback chases before he’s whisked off to Mars via an amulet he finds in a cave of gold. Once he’s uncomfortably ensconced on the red planet, which is known to its natives as Barsoom, Carter is caught between a pair of warring, technologically advanced cities whose inhabitants have disastrous spray tans and dress like extras from Clash of the Titans. At first, Carter wants no part of their centuries-old war, but he eventually chooses to fight for Helium, partly because they’re the good guys but mostly because the city is championed by a sexy orange princess named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In order to defeat the predatory (not to mention ambulatory) city of Zodanga, Carter must win the allegiance of the Tharks, a race of green, four-armed Martians led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe); he also mixes it up with the Therns, a group of intergalactic busybodies who get their kicks from facilitating the violent downfall of entire societies.
In other words, John Carter is pulp at its pulpiest. It’s directed with considerable affection and enthusiasm by Pixar mainstay Andrew Stanton, who makes his live-action debut here after helming Finding Nemo and WALL-E. When it embraces the inherent goofiness of the material, the film soars. As long as one-liners and blue Martian blood are flying, John Carter is endearing and entertaining. When it stops to catch its breath, though, it has a tendency to take itself a bit too seriously. We probably wouldn’t notice so much if its lead actor had more charisma, but Kitsch doesn’t have the charm to carry the movie through its weaker moments. Dominic West, chewing digital scenery as the sneering villain who tries to trick the princess into marrying him, is lots more fun, as is Mark Strong as the shadowy mastermind whispering in West’s ear.
Ironically, though, John Carter’s downfall might be the sheer breadth of its influence. Though few people are familiar with the novels nowadays, those who are have a tendency to do things like grow up and make Star Wars. This might be the first time the character has enjoyed his own marquee space at the multiplex, but elements of the story have been rehashed so often in everything from Star Trek to Dances With Wolves that it’s likely to feel hackneyed and contrived to modern-day mainstream audiences. Too bad Disney’s marketing budget for the film didn’t include installing a nerd in every theater to point out that Avatar stole from the John Carter tales, not the other way around. I would have loved the chance to pick up some extra cash.