'John Carter' skips out on plot

L to R: Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Sola (Samantha Morton) star in...

L to R: Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Sola (Samantha Morton) star in "John Carter".

JIM SLOTEK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:44 AM ET

Remember what an elegantly simple story the original Star Wars was, and the incomprehensible, tangle of fan-boy canon-fodder it became?

Imagine if Lucas had immediately thrown Jar Jar at us, and the Sith, as well as the Force being the energy of midichlorians in the bloodstream of Jedis.

With the ineptly-marketed John Carter the usually sharp storyteller Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) has taken a similar saga and decided to skip the simple story part and go straight to the "Wait ... who the what now?"

As someone who read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Carter books when I was 13, I can understand how devoted you can become to every bit of a cherished memory.

But they were originally written as serials, the form embraced by Lucas -- whose Star Wars owes much to the template of Burroughs' Barsoom stories (as does Jim Cameron's Avatar).

Heavy in exposition and characters, John Carter is entertaining when it's in action mode, has a couple of decently-written scenes, and starts to resemble the legendarily moribund Dune when it fixates on the byzantine politics of the planet Barsoom, a.k.a. Mars. (By the way, who was the marketing genius who took the words "of Mars" off the title? It now sounds like a movie about a Southern lawyer).

But it says most about John Carter that it's most alive, fast-paced and fun in its first act, with its feet squarely planted on Earth in Arizona's Apache Country. There we meet the cynical ex-Civil War soldier Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who literally butts heads with Col. Powell (Bryan Cranston), who's trying with extreme prejudice to conscript him as an Indian fighter.

On the run from Powell, Carter hides in a cave and activates mysterious mumbo jumbo that lands him on the topographically identical surface of Mars (though he doesn't know it, until he discovers he can jump a football field due to low gravity). For a while, that sense of fun and adventure carries over, when he encounters his first Martian, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), the leader of a tall species known as the Tharks.

This should have been the movie. The Tharks are both comically aggressive, and the only species on Barsoom that look alien (other than a dog-lizard thing called a Calot). Every other race -- Heliumites, Zodangans, Therns -- is "alien" in that Stargate SG-1 way, with henna on their faces.

But the fun can't last. Carter eventually breaks away along with a helpful female Thark (Samantha Morton), Heliumite princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), and Carter's faithful Calot Woola and heads to Helium for head-exploding intrigue. Thoris is betrothed to the cheesily-villainous Zodangan leader Sab Than (Dominic West), who pretends to want peace between the "Red Men," but is really in league with the mysterious, sinister, superior Therns, who... blah, blah.

Please fight somebody, John! At least it'll stop them from talking.

So was it the 3D that made my head spin, or the plot?

To the extent that gibberish dialogue can be "acted," Dafoe actually acts through his stilt-walking CGI body. The heavier the British accent, the more likely the character is to be a villain.

As for Kitsch, a career bad boy, he's a more convincing anti-hero in the first act than a hero later.

This film is rated PG


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