By Michael Phillips 2014-09-19

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

2 stars

Set on Earth and Mars, the new science-fiction bash "John Carter" isn't much -- or rather, it's too much and not enough in weird, clumpy combinations -- but it is a curious sort of blur. And it was directed by Andrew Stanton, making his live-action feature debut after the Pixar successes he helmed, "Finding Nemo" and the splendid "Wall-E."

He has the courage of his convictions; with Disney suits breathing down his neck, through all sorts of reshoots, he has made the movie, one presumes, he more or less wanted to make, honoring the source material by "Tarzan" creator Edgar Rice Burroughs ("A Princess of Mars," from 1912) while attempting to keep pace in a post-"Star Wars" and post-"Avatar" universe.

Here's what I like about it: I like the doglike 10-legged Martian animal known as the Woola. He is fantastic, a blobby but loyal fellow with a blue tongue (the blood of Martian critters of various species is also blue) and the ability to run several hundred miles per hour. If the film succeeds, breeders of fancy French bulldogs will get right to work on something more kinetic, like the Woola.

I like the musical score by Michael Giacchino. It offers both dramatic heft and clever surprises galore in its orchestrations. Composer Bernard Herrmann served as a sonic influence, and just as Herrmann augmented the Ray Harryhausen-designed effects spectacles "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "Mysterious Island" with all that crazed and glorious atmosphere, Giacchino keeps us listening without forcing us to only listen.

Thirdly: I like the toupee worn by Ciaran Hinds, who plays the king of Helium, at war with the Zodangans, who are quite separate from the vicious green Tharks or the devilish Therns. Hinds' silvery 1977-era rug makes him look like the Richard Dawson of Mars. This proves that whatever the final budget on "John Carter" (some estimates point to nearly $300 million) you can never get everybody's hair quite right.

The film has bigger problems than its hair, beginning with its script. Our hero is John Carter, the Confederate Civil War veteran who strikes gold in the Arizona territory but who is whisked to the planet Barsoom on the flimsiest of pretexts. Barsoom is Mars by another name, and the Virginia-born Carter lands in the middle of another civil war, this one between the Heliumites and the Zondangans. Dejah Thoris, the Heliumite princess known also as "the red girl," is about to be married off against her will. But love finds a way, and while Taylor Kitsch's hunky John Carter and Lynn Collins' dishy princess smolder as effectively as possible under the circumstances, Kitsch in particular seems lost in ways unrelated to his character's predicament.

Too often in "John Carter" the stakes seem oddly low, given the imminent fate of Barsoom, and the perpetual near-death scenarios thrown at Carter himself. (George Lucas, among others, took a lot from Burroughs' Martian adventures for the "Star Wars" universe, even if "Star Wars" owed just as much to "Flash Gordon" serials.) There may be something in the mixture of Old West and science-fiction mythologies that blows a modern audience's circuitry. "Cowboys & Aliens," which I rather liked, came and went with a shrug while "John Carter" was already years into its development and execution.

The major problem here is one of rooting interest. I hate to sound like a mogul, or a focus group, but at the center of this picture is a flat, inexpressive protagonist played by a flat, inexpressive actor. He's an invulnerable slab, this guy, and the action sequences lack satisfying shape. Too much of the dialogue relies on explication of past events, explaining and re-explaining what happened when to whom, and why. We don't really experience the story through Carter's astonished eyes, and the story is heavy and sour.

Some of it's very pretty, but not much of it's fun. Which is why I liked the Woola so much, I suppose. He is fun.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action).

Running time: 2:12.

Cast: Taylor Kitsch (John Carter); Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris); Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas); Ciaran Hinds (Tardos Mors).

Credits: Directed by Andrew Stanton; written by Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on the story "A Princess of Mars," by Edgar Rice Burroughs; produced by Colin Wilson, Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins. A Buena Vista release.

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