Based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story that debuted in a pulp magazine 100 years ago, John Carter is a very expensive movie. If there's any other reason why the movie was evacuated from the bowels of Hollywood now, amid a lousy seasonal malaise when nobody's particularly clamoring for a quarter-billion-dollar blockbuster, it escapes me. Somebody out there must love centennials, though, because here we are -- and there's Taylor Kitsch, oiled up in some kind of sarong that is most definitely not decent, or for that matter, pants.
On Mars, I guess, nobody needs to wear pants.
Carter (Kitsch), a one-time Confederate Army captain mining for gold in Arizona, doesn't just up and decide to boldly go, of course. While hiding out after escaping the custody of a Civil War colonel (Bryan Cranston), he shoots a bald alien between the eyes, snatches the guy's interplanetary doohickey, and accidentally magicks himself to Barsoom (i.e. Mars). Carter doesn't know where he is -- and so, is totally unaware of the thousand-year war that's ravaged the red planet -- but thanks to a weaker gravitational force, he's able to leap and throw punches like some kind of Martian Superman. He's received as such by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), a four-armed alien who leads the tribal Tharks, then gets yanked into a fight between decidedly more human foes: Sab Than (Dominic West), a militant ruler who's backed by an unseen, all-powerful advisor (Mark Strong), and the sultry warrior princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
And pardon the aside, but when can we put an end to this action movie trope of women who are independent by virtue of their aggression? Dejah Thoris is tough only so far as she kills things. She struggles to make decisions on her own, fawns over Carter like a schoolgirl, and can't seem to go 15 minutes without needing rescue. She's still a damsel, she's still in distress, she's exactly like many of the ladies who came before her, and she's sure as hell not independent.
It's hard to describe John Carter without calling attention to its predecessors, or rather, its source's descendants. Burroughs, of Tarzan fame, wrote the Barsoom series over three decades in the early 20th century, influencing a generation of soon-to-be writers, such as Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Name a sci-fi movie, and odds are it owes something to Burroughs's vision of a ruined Mars. (Name Avatar, on the other hand, and you've pretty much described this adaptation.) John Carter is not an ode, though, nor is it camp, so this is not a good thing.
And that, aside from the idea to adapt a pulp series that was originally published before World War I, is John Carter's worst flaw. It's one thing to offer clunky dialogue in an action movie -- regrettable as it is, the genre doesn't put a premium on words -- but don't punt the story. This one, penned by director Andrew Stanton and Pixar's Mark Andrews, with an assist by Michael Chabon, layers itself to the point of nonsense with conflicting logics. Carter is absolutely determined to find a way back to Earth... until he's literally a word away from home. Dejah Thoris reviles Sab Than with a murderous rage... until her sword is at his throat and she decides to marry him. In these and other scenes, reason gets tossed, the plot moves along, and everybody keeps counting the seconds until they can watch pretty people fight baddies again.
Packed between those awfully fun sequences, unfortunately, are a series of Very Important Questions that aren't all that important. Will Carter, the tortured anti-hero, find something to fight for? Once he finds it, what will he sacrifice to keep it? Do Earthlings and Martians – especially sexpots like Kitsch and Collins – have matching bits to do the dirty? These questions are immaterial, yet another sign of John Carter's awkward landing. This is a sci-fi movie with a decent sense of action, trying to pass itself off as an epic worthy of sequels, merchandise, and all those other horrible things Hollywood does to justify spending $250 million to make a movie.
That much money spent to bring back this? With great respect to Burroughs and all that he did to encourage contemporary science fiction, I can't help but think of some advice a friend once gave me: Sure, we descended from monkeys, but that still doesn't make it smart to screw one.