Character created a century ago by ‘Tarzan’ author Edgar Rice Burroughs finally makes it to the silver screen
Starring Taylor Kitsch & Lynn Collins
Directed by Andrew Stanton
132 min., PG-13
A 100-year-old pulp-fiction character finally makes it into the movies in “John Carter,” the rollicking new Disney 3-D romp about an astral-traveling Civil War veteran and his wild adventures on the planet Mars.
John Carter, created in the early 1900s by later “Tarzan” author Edgar Rice Burroughs, appeared first in serialized “adventure” magazine stories that were later reprinted as novels. His popular yarns came close to becoming movies a couple of times, as far back as the 1930s, but something always happened to sidetrack the projects.
Most recently, sci-fi geeks have been eager to see how the House of Mouse would handle this dime-store-rack cult classic, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. The “John Carter” movie is a sweeping, sometimes eye-popping spectacle structured faithfully in the service of Burroughs’ original tale of a battle-weary Confederate captain who becomes a swashbuckling savior to a parched, war-ravaged planet in need of a hero.
“Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E” director Andrew Stanton makes an impressive live-action debut, integrating the movie’s real actors into a teeming special-effects world of whiz-bang computer-generated gusto. Among the digitized delights, there’s a race of towering, green, tusked nomads with four arms; flying warships that resemble giant dragonflies; enormous toad-like watchdogs; and enraged blind apes that tear victims to shreds.
But at the heart of the spectacle is Carter (Taylor Kitsch, who played Tim Riggins on TV’s “Friday Night Lights”), whom we meet at the beginning of the movie on Earth, several years after the Civil War has ended. He’s on a crazy quest that has led him to a cave way out West, deep in Apache territory, where he stumbles onto an ancient secret that suddenly, mysteriously transports him—poof—to Mars.
On the red planet, Carter, freed of the stronger gravity of his home, finds he can jump astounding distances and pack quite a punch, qualities that come in handy in the raging war in which he finds himself. But for reasons we won’t fully understand until later, he has vowed to never again fight on behalf of anyone, or any cause.
Perhaps the plight of a beautiful Martian princess (Lynn Collins, who played Dawn Green on TV’s “True Blood”) and her people will rekindle his sense of loyalty. “Our world is dying,” she tells him. “Fate has brought you here.”
The story’s got romance, humor, and even some philosophical gristle: Is war a cosmic constant? Is anything worth fighting for?
The mature, film-reviewing grownup in me found it a bit chaotic and confusing at times, sluggish and dull at others, and occasionally remindful of its long line of sci-fi motion-picture predecessors (“Star Wars,” “Avatar,” “Thor,” “Lord of the Rings”).
But in some deep, neglected part of my brain, when John Carter was squaring off against those monster apes, or hopping like a flea from the wing of one flying warship to another, or rallying an army of the green, desert-dwelling Tharks to fight the evil humanoids of Zadonga, I felt like I was a wide-eyed 10-year-old again.
If you know what I mean, and you also get that 10-year-old’s itch that sometimes just needs a good movie scratching, well, “John Carter” is probably that kind…your kind…our kind…of movie.