Yes, there is life on Mars in “John Carter,” and it’s deadly dull. These are not words you would expect to use in describing a film from Andrew Stanton, director of the Oscar-winning Pixar favorites “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” who is making his live-action debut. And yet there they are, and they are inescapable.
Except for a strong cast, a few striking visuals and some unexpected flashes of humor, “John Carter” is just a dreary, convoluted trudge -- a soulless sprawl of computer-generated blippery converted to 3D. It is the unfortunate film that is loaded with exposition and yet still ends up being massively confusing.
It probably will seem also rather derivative, but that is because the source material, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic pulp tale “A Princess of Mars,” has been so influential to pop culture in general and science fiction specifically for the past century. You will see glimmers of “Superman” in our hero’s leaping ability, some “Star Wars” in the insect-like flight vehicles and a whole lotta “Avatar” in the lanky alien creatures who inhabit Mars, as well as the interplanetary romance that blossoms. John Carter himself, played with rugged, independent quiet by “Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch, seems akin to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. And his smart-alecky, deadpan quips in the face of adventure and danger recall the glibness of Indiana Jones. Still, the film as a whole may seem impenetrable for the uninitiated.
From a script by Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, “John Carter” finds the title character, a Civil War veteran prospecting for gold, suddenly transported from the vast, craggy landscape of the American West to the vast, craggy landscape of Mars (or Barsoom, as it is known here). There he finds himself in the middle of a different kind of civil war between various species. He becomes the prisoner of the six-limbed, green-skinned, giant warrior Tharks, led (through motion-capture performances) by the benevolent Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe); his daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton); and the gruff Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Meanwhile, the humanoid factions from Helium and Zodanga are battling for control of the whole planet. Helium’s Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is being forced by her father (Ciaran Hinds) to marry Zodangan leader Sab Than (Dominic West) in hopes of achieving a truce. The devious Sab Than has other plans in mind, with some encouragement from Matai Shang (played by the ever-reliable bad guy Mark Strong), one of a trio of troublemaking, shape-shifting Therns. You keeping up so far? You need a flow chart? You are not alone.
Anyway, Dejah escapes and John Carter rescues her, or at least thinks he rescues her. Dejah is an impossible mix of beauty, brains and butt-kicking prowess. She’s a scientist and a swordswoman -- and “John Carter” is refreshing in allowing its female lead to be every bit the equal of her male counterpart.
From here, John Carter must decide whether to remain a stoic loner and go back to Earth or stay and fight the good fight for the betterment of another planet. There are plenty of battles to be had with various creatures but also way too much chatty nonsense about ancient scripture and gates and goddesses and some blue, sparkly weapon thingy that gives its bearer super-duper powers. None of this provides “John Carter” with the sort of rousing, crowd-pleasing momentum that a long-gestating blockbuster with a reported budget of $250 million should have; it all seems rather dense and self-serious.
Thankfully, there’s the pleasingly goofy creature who becomes John Carter’s de facto animal companion. He’s sort of a monster-dog hybrid: an overgrown pug with a sweet, smushy face, incredible speed and boundless enthusiasm. This gives “John Carter” something in common with yet another pop-culture phenomenon, “The Artist”: The dog is the best part.