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John Carter

A mega-budget adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi serial is clunky and unnecessarily confusing

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Look, nobody expects a 19th-century trip to Mars to run smoothly, but this 21st-century film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi serial is one bumbling mission.

The glumly titled John Carter opens on Mars during a mid-air battle between two bands of human-style Martians, who are dressed like ancient Greeks. Then, three guys wearing Fortuny gowns descend from the clouds, and hand one Greek dude a blue zappy thing, intoning: "We serve the goddess. She has chosen you to wield this weapon." Whaaa?

From there, we're on Earth — where we bounce from 1881 New York to 1868 Arizona before finally following our hero, Civil War vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), to Mars ... where the Greek people are nowhere in sight. 

Instead, Carter joins a group of green, super-tall, alien-style Martians, with giant eyes, four arms and tusks. (They speak Martian, whereas the Greek people spoke English.) Now cut! — and we're in a cathedral where a spray-tanned woman (Lynn Collins) is being ordered to get married, or the entire city of BeatsMeWhere will collapse. The Confuse-o-Tron is set on 11!

I finally sorted out the various players, and was annoyed to find that John Carter was a basic us-vs.-them story that shouldn't have taken an hour to set up. This is essentially a Saturday-matinee serial, and would be more satisfying if the filmmakers hadn't gummed it up with bad framing devices and nonlinear storytelling. Just dump us on Mars, dress the good and bad guys differently, and let the battles begin!

As it is, Carter enlists some sympathetic greenies (plus a huge pug-like animal, the Martian equivalent of the frantic Beggin' Strips dog), and helps the super-tanned Princess of Helium (alas, no squeaky voice) defeat the bad Greek guys. (Dominic West dons the manly mini-robe to play the villain, and that poor man hasn't had this much guyliner on since he rocked Steel Dragon in Rock Star.)

John Carter is directed by Andrew Stanton, who earned his bones directing the far more coherent Pixar features Finding Nemo and WALL*E. Discounting the clunky Earth stories, the action on Mars is straight-up B-movie material, though you'll marvel at Carter hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars in effects and cinematic trickery. (The film was "created" in a digital limbo between an English studio and the Utah desert.) I screened the 3-D IMAX version, and the vistas on Mars are pretty eye-popping. But the story is so junky you might as well save the money and just visit Monument Valley in person.

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