Riggins and Aliens

Taylor Kitsch stars in the space Western John Carter.

Still from John Carter
Still from John Carter

Frank Connor/Disney.

Also in Slate, Bryan Curtis asks if John Carter can make Mars cool again.

Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (Disney) comes into theaters trailing a cartload of production-history baggage. This would-be tentpole action picture—a retro-sci-fi fantasy based on a 1917 novel by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs—has bounced between studios and from one big-name director to another, until finally Disney bought the rights and gave it to Stanton (best known for his animation work at Pixar, including Wall-E and Finding Nemo). The result is a strange, at times misshapen, but somehow lovable thing: a movie that keeps trying to be smaller and simpler than its $250 million special-effects budget will permit. Buried within this bloated, CGI-crammed, unnecessarily 3D-ified monster is a bare-bones space western, the movie that last year’s Cowboys and Aliens should have been. And though that smaller movie within the movie isn’t allowed to surface often enough, what we do see of it is sufficiently winning that we keep waiting around, looking forward to its next appearance.

John Carter starts off unpromisingly with not one but two overlong frame-story setups. The first involves a singularly unthrilling Martian air battle between two bird-like supercrafts manned by soldiers in armor reminiscent of ancient Rome, or at least movies about it. The second and more interesting framing device takes us to New York City in 1881, where the young, wide-eyed Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara) unexpectedly inherits the vast estate of his late uncle, the eccentric amateur archeologist John Carter. Going through Carter’s papers, Burroughs discovers a journal that begins by warning the reader (in slightly more formal Victorian language) to prepare to have his mind blown.

It’s not till then, in a flashback, that we finally meet John Carter, and the movie snaps to attention. Or maybe that was just all the straight women and gay men in the theater snapping to attention, since Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch, the blunt-featured, compactly buff, curiously irresistible actor who played the high-school football star Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights. Carter is a Confederate Civil War veteran who’s now making a living prospecting gold in the American West. He’s tough (as we learn in a redundant series of fight scenes) and stubborn (as proven by his refusal to enlist in the Apache-fighting cavalry at the behest of an insistent colonel played by Bryan Cranston).

This review would quickly get as overstuffed as the movie if I took the time to explain how Carter gets from a prison cell in the Arizona Territory to the surface of Mars (he finds a magic medallion that transports him there through a space wormhole, OK?). But once he arrives on that planet’s mysteriously oxygen-rich surface, the movie achieves its maximum buoyancy— as does Carter, who learns to harness the gravity of Mars to become an expert leaper.

This middle section, in which both Carter and the audience get a crash course in the politics, history, and theology of the Red Planet, is the movie at its most imaginative and most fun. Carter is first taken in by the Tharks, a race of six-limbed reptilian beings who are dissuaded from killing him by their wise leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Carter soon learns that Mars (known to its inhabitants as Barsoom) also hosts two humanoid populations who are at war with each other for control of the planet. The two city-states are named, wonderfully, Helium and Zodanga; the princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is engaged to the prince of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West), but, desperate to avoid this forced marriage, she’s run away to seek help in defeating the evil Zodangans.

All this Burroughsian lingo washes pleasantly over the viewers’ ears; you don’t need to get exactly what the Holy Therns are (some sort of order of shape-shifting immortal priests) to know that it’s cool when a baldheaded Mark Strong appears out of nowhere in flowing gray robes to expound on Martian cosmology. At its best, John Carter resembles the kind of movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was made to pay homage to, a rollicking, pleasantly predictable Saturday-afternoon serial. And the fantastical creatures of Mars—the green-skinned, 15-foot-tall Tharks, the massive albino apes who take Carter on in gladiatorial combat, and a sort of chubby half-dog, half-dinosaur that Carter adopts as a pet—are appealingly old-fashioned, like a digitally enhanced version of the stop-motion monsters Ray Harryhausen fashioned for movies like Jason and the Argonauts

The film’s last third overestimates the viewer’s patience for extended battle scenes, grand CGI-augmented processions, and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. But it’s to the credit of the screenwriters (Stanton, Mark Andrews and the fantasy-friendly novelist Michael Chabon) that underneath the layers of cheese is a strangely believable romance between the taciturn earthling John Carter and the fiery Martian princess Dejah. Collins, a Cate Blanchett lookalike who made a memorable Portia in 2004’s The Merchant of Venice, has a serene, poised presence even in the goofy midriff-baring costumes she’s forced to wear; like Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, her Dejah is a worthy warrior and ally, not just interstellar arm candy. And Taylor Kitsch may not have the broadest range as an actor, but there’s something endearingly sincere about his performance. He takes his job as an action hero seriously and never hints that he’s ironically slumming, even when emerging from the innards of a giant ape drenched in royal-blue blood.

I only wish John Carter had had the courage of its convictions, and not tried to be all things to all demographics. At heart, this is a niche movie for lovers of literary science fiction; it’s clear that Stanton’s intention was to create a rich, internally coherent fantasy universe, the way Peter Jackson did in the Lord of The Rings films or George Lucas did in the first Star Wars trilogy. The film should also have kept the working title that it shyly reveals only before the final credits: John Carter of Mars. It’s that unexpected juxtaposition—the ordinary guy who finds his inner hero when he wakes up on the wrong planet—that lends this overlong but sweet-spirited movie its charm.