“John Carter,” the movie, has been in development for a hundred years. No wonder it’s such a tangle of time, space, and narrative point of view.
John Carter, the man, hails from Virginia, but he was in Arizona when he wound up on Mars. That was in 1868, but our tale, as unfurled in a 2012 film based on a 1912 story, begins in 1881. And he is its protagonist, although the account is relayed through his young nephew, who, with our disbelief kindly suspended, will grow up to become the prolific pulp fictioneer Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Meanwhile Burroughs’ swashbuckling sci-fi serial will grow up to become a movie by the director of “Wall-E,” with writing help from the author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” and starring the heartthrob from “Friday Night Lights.” If the result feels disorderly, not to mention derivative of “Star Wars” and “Avatar” and everything in between, well, that’s an irony given source material without which those movies might not have existed. And that’s just what a century’s worth of development will do.
Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, is a former Confederate Army captain who finds himself teleported to the red planet, where lesser gravity lets him leap tall boulders, and toss them around, like a superhero. How he breathes and keeps warm is not explained, but we get the idea that actually there is an atmosphere on Mars, and it retains at least enough sunshine that a loincloth is all the outerwear one really needs.
Also, there are Martians. They aren’t little green men but big ones, tall and reedy, with four arms each and facial tusks. With their brute exoticism and clannish codes of honor, they exude an old colonialist’s idea of noble savagery, as quaintly outdated as the astronomical understanding that inspired their fictive world. But these folks are not the only residents of Barsoom, as Mars is known in the local parlance. In fact the place is all too crowded. It has humans, of sorts, as well, and the problems they bring.
Having tried to put America’s War Between the States behind him, Carter inadvertently catalyzes a war between Martian city states. Theirs is more of a swords-and-sandals affair, if Lynn Collins as the lusciously bikinied scientist-warrior princess is any indication, but our man seems up to it. And with a visual scheme so handsomely commensurate with fantasy artist Frank Frazetta’s eye-popping covers for Burroughs’ books, well, who wouldn’t be?
The princess’ father, an affably pudgy Ciarán Hinds, has arranged for her marriage to a blandly villainous Dominic West, who’s been terrorizing the planet with powers on loan from a meddling Mark Strong, the apparent alpha in a trio of lurking non-Martian aliens. From here things become more tangled.
It all seems rather a lot to handle for Pixar mainstay director Andrew Stanton, here making his live-action debut. Written by Stanton, his writing partner Mark Andrews, and superstar novelist Michael Chabon, himself a longtime Martian-adventure freak (see also “The McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales”), “John Carter” comes across as smart and sleek but also strangely subservient to its own rich legacy. It’s just not special enough.
Kitsch certainly has the right last name for this enterprise, and more or less the right cipher-like presence: a vessel into which 12-year-olds of all ages might project themselves. (Sometimes he seems like a poor man’s James Franco. But then, sometimes, so does James Franco.) His other co-stars include Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, and Bryan Cranston, variously obscured by fabricated pixels or facial hair. And if they too appear periodically to fade into the scenery, at least the scenery is exquisite.
Living up to reported uncertainty about whether it’ll become a trilogy, “John Carter” feels hurried and crammed. Of course that’s true to its source material too. Ultimately the movie, like the man, is lighter on its feet than expected. Never does it lack commitment to its own pulpy panache. You want to tease it for being so earnest, but there’s no time, and too much to take in, so instead you just keep the fistfuls of popcorn coming.