The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs are so influential in terms of modern blockbusters that it’s almost impossible to adapt them for the screen nowadays without recalling the movies that Burroughs inspired: Stars Wars, for one, and most especially, Avatar. And so John Carter, based on the first of Burroughs’ 11-book Martian series, A Princess of Mars, may have been doomed from the start: How could it come off as anything other than a pastiche? (Though it recalls Dune more than Avatar, and that is not a good thing.)
Perhaps the producers who poured a large fortune into this meandering, pedestrian adventure believed that Pixar wunderkind Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed it, would magically summon the protoscientific imagination that ripples through Burroughs’ prose. Though Stanton has written almost all of the most charming animated films of recent years, and directed two of the most memorable (Finding Nemo and Wall-E), his John Carter is a lumbering epic, riddled with odd omissions—on this dried-out, dying red planet, what do the inhabitants drink to stay alive?—while lurching from one style, as with the steampunk Western of the prologue, to another, such as child-friendly interludes featuring petlike beasties designed for the Toy Story generation. It’s not awful, especially compared to that other planetary transplant story, The Green Lantern, yet it still seems a long slog for such an outlandish story.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a renegade Civil War cavalry officer who is accidentally beamed up to the planet Barzoom. Discovering he can bounce like the Hulk in the thinner atmosphere doesn’t prevent him from being captured by a primitive race of green-skinned, four-armed humanoids. Surviving his initiation and receiving the protection of a Martian chieftain (voice by Willem Dafoe), Carter finds his destiny entwined with that of a human kingdom, Helium, when he comes to the aid of the realm’s warrior princess, Dejah (Lynn Collins), who is about to be married off to Sab (Dominic West), the nefarious rival to her father’s rule. Sab is under the influence of a race of immortal shape-shifters, who are concerned about an energy ray as yet unknown to the inhabitants of Barzoom. At various times, Carter has to do battle with the ritualistic Martians, the warring humans, invisible technologies, and loosed albino ape monsters (not as much fun as they sound). Meanwhile, the audience has to defend itself against narrative emissions of pseudo-science and unimaginative architectural set design.
In this conscientious but peculiarly sodden sci-fi fantasy, even the airships don’t really seem to fly.