We were 20 minutes into John Carter and surrounded by a regiment of bloodthirsty Tharks when I realized I was lost. I figured we were probably on Mars. (The movie was originally titled John Carter of Mars, so that was a clue.) But the opening act whipped through a history of civil war on a red planet called Barsoom—with aerial dogfights between galleons lofted by dragonfly wings—before landing on the Atlantic seaboard in 1881, where we were informed that American Civil War vet John Carter had just died. Then another jump to Arizona circa 1868, where we met Carter, alive if long unshaved, fleeing the U.S. Cavalry and Apaches. There was a cave of gold, and a glowing pendant, and suddenly ol' whiskery John was bouncing across a brilliantly yellow desert, hopping precipitously into the air like a Super Mario Bros. character. And then the Tharks showed up.
I had no idea what was going on. I was glad.
If John Carter is a box-office debacle—as the smart money is betting—this disorienting launch sequence will join a long list of missteps in a luckless production. Pixar wunderkind Andrew Stanton has decided to leap from WALL-E into live-action filmmaking by adapting a series of penny dreadfuls penned in 1917 by the guy who invented Tarzan. The movie went through sweeping reshoots because the first cut didn't make any sense, the budget surpassed $300 million, and the title was trimmed so women would want to see it. Women still don't want to see it. John Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch (he was Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights), and he often looks, to put it politely, confused about what actors do. The movie lurches wildly between moods, and the plot is nearly impossible to follow.
None of these things matter. John Carter has tectonic flaws, but it's fearless and exhilaratingly outlandish, the first hint that the CGI era can do something radically different than add bigger bubbles to soap operas. At its worst, it's grin-inducingly idiosyncratic sci-fi—I haven't seen this kind of blithe world-building since 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. At its best, it's what people wanted from the Star Wars prequels.
The Edgar Rice Burroughs story, streamlined by Michael Chabon, is terrifically unhinged, but the movie's triumphs (and, I suppose, its spoilers) are not in its plot but in its sights. Let's take those Tharks: They're giant green men who hatch from eggs as slimy manatees and mature into skinny, tusked walruses with four arms, the voices and mannerisms of Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church, and a weakness for gladiatorial combat with White Apes. I won't even try to describe what the White Apes look like, except that if you've been hankering to see Rankin/Bass' stop-motion Abominable Snow Monster of the North as designed by Industrial Light and Magic, sit tight. Befitting a grandiose filming of a boys' weekly adventure, the palette is almost exclusively primary colors: blue, yellow and (of course) red.
John Carter's emotional heft comes directly from these strange vistas: It makes you wonder if we still live in a time when new worlds can be discovered, and if something fresh can sprout in our own. This hope—that not everything is regurgitated junk—was also explored by Stanton in WALL-E, and here the redemption isn't as radical: In a gorgeously orchestrated montage, John saves his princess (Lynn Collins) by knifing through a pile of aliens like a quarterback breaking tackles with a machete. But if the violence is conventional, the sense of exploration and grandeur is real. "We have a saying on Barsoom," says one of the nobler Tharks: "A warrior can change his metal, but not his heart." I haven't got a clue what was going on, but I'm glad Andrew Stanton's heart is still in a different place.
Critic's Score: 85
SEE IT: John Carter is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia Mill Plain, Cornelius, Pioneer Place, Oak Grove, City Center, Evergreen, Hilltop, Tigard, Wilsonville, Roseway and St. Johns Twin.