March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'John Carter' series turns 100 this year; 'John Carter' the movie only seems to go on for 100 years


Rip Van Winkle’s got nothing on John Carter, a Civil War vet who falls asleep in an Arizona cave in 1868 and awakens in an arid wasteland in which he finds himself able to jump half a mile into the sky and bound effortlessly across the plains.

“Where on earth am I?” Carter wonders.

It’s called Mars — or, as the natives say, Barsoom.

Long before there was a Buck Rogers or a Captain Video or a Luke Skywalker, there was John Carter, the creation of prolific writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. But although Carter’s interplanetary escapades wowed readers back in the first half of the 20th century, he somehow never made the leap to the big screen.

Director Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter” arrives on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Burroughs’ first Carter adventure, “A Princess of Mars,” although the filmmakers seem less motivated by a determination to honor Burroughs than by a desire to whip up a cosmic concoction that might bring in “Avatar”-size box office.

Unfortunately, “Carter” is worlds away from James Cameron’s blockbuster in terms of both quality and production values. Despite a hefty budget, the movie frequently comes across as nothing more than slicked-up, slowed-down 1970s Saturday morning TV, complete with curiously cheesy visual effects (made uglier by irritating 3D), costumes that might have come from a Halloween thrift store and a script that never finds a consistent tone. “Carter” is half starchy, straight-faced space opera — with the emotionally impaired Taylor Kitsch ensuring that Carter has no discernible personality whatsoever — and half cornball campiness, as extraterrestrials swear and make wisecracks and spit out Schwarzenegger-style punchlines. The movie has bursts of action, but no oomph; it’s “Flash Gordon” without the flash.

Stanton collaborated on the interminable screenplay with Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon, and the result is an elaborate, unsatisfying mishmash that’s alternately confusing, confused and confounding, sort of like the “Heaven’s Gate” of sci-fi.

It also unfolds as a catalogue of fantasy film cliches, although that’s not necessarily the fault of the filmmakers: When Burroughs was writing these tales a century ago, plotlines about death rays, alien warfare and sexy Martian sirens probably seemed much more novel.

For better or worse, “Carter” does play out like vintage pulp fiction, as Carter is almost immediately caught up in a Barsoomian brouhaha pitting the forces of Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, who’s stuck playing a supposedly brilliant scientist and fearless warrior who runs around in skimpy, silky outfits better suited for belly dancing) against the sinister Sab Than (Dominic West), who commands Zodanga, “the predator city.” Imprisoned and briefly enslaved by a race of towering green-skinned, four-armed, vaguely reptilian beings known as Tharks, Carter soon wins over his captors and enlists their aid in preventing Dejah’s unhappily arranged marriage to her mortal enemy, an act of self-sacrifice that will bring peace to the planet, if not to Dejah’s bedroom.

The most enjoyable aspects of “John Carter” turn out to be entirely incidental, such as the amusingly antiquated look of the Zodangian airships with their dragonfly wings, enormous gears and fluttering banners, and the antics of Woola, a kindly creature that’s like an economy-size Jabba the Hut, but behaves like a devoted beagle on an all-espresso diet. These inspired accessories, however, can’t compensate for the insipid performances, creaky pacing and dialogue that’s often head-smackingly horrendous (personal fave, from a disgusted Thark: “Weakness! Sentiment! Allowing this white worm to contaminate the horde! Let them be crushed, like unhatched eggs!”).

You can feel the strain as Stanton (making his first foray into live-action debut after directing the Pixar smashes “WALL-E” and “Finding Nemo”) futilely attempts to jazz up this needlessly complicated and drawn-out story. But while the gravitational force of Mars may allow John Carter to soar sky-high, “John Carter” remains utterly earthbound, plodding along from one unimpressive episode to the next without generating any sense of true excitement and proving conclusively that some antiques should be left on the shelf.