There is interplanetary travel in the fantasy-epic "John Carter," but the movie itself is a time warp. Though based on a 1917 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs and made with a 2012 budget, it feels like an endearingly hokey production from the 1960s, with actors traipsing across soundstages and delivering lines like "I claim the right of challenge!"
That's not entirely a bad thing. "John Carter" is directed with such boyish enthusiasm and unabashed nerdism by Pixar's Andrew Stanton ("WALL-E") that its campier moments almost work in its favor. Though messy and overlong, it's an enjoyable throwback to the movie spectacles of a more innocent age.
Instead of Tony Curtis in "Spartacus," we have Taylor Kitsch (NBC's "Friday Night Lights") as John Carter, a Confederate cavalryman mysteriously transported to Mars (and quickly strapped into a sexy barbarian chest harness). And instead of Raquel Welch in "One Million Years B.C.," we have Lynn Collins (HBO's "True Blood") as Dejah Thoris, a heavenly-bodied princess. The various Martian creatures are animated not with stop-motion but motion-capture, including Tars Tarkas, a towering, tusked Thark with four limbs and the still-recognizable voice of Willem Dafoe.
The script, co-written by haute-pulp novelist Michael Chabon, makes no apologies for sticking to cliches. Carter, now superhumanly strong thanks to Mars' low gravity, crosses swords with despot Sab Than (Dominic West), swashbuckles his way across a Martian Jolly Roger and even crashes into a church to stop a wedding. As if that weren't enough, the entire yarn is framed in a mystery set in 1881 Manhattan.
All this pingponging around can get tiresome, but Kitsch and Collins have just enough chemistry to get by, and Stanton is clearly having a blast. The film's 3-D conversion looks great, too, though "John Carter" almost makes you long for a pair of those cardboard, blue-green glasses.
PLOT A Civil War veteran transported to Mars finds himself fighting yet another battle. RATING PG-13 (action scenes, some gruesome imagery)
PLAYING AT Area theaters, some in 3-D.
BOTTOM LINE Certainly no classic, but an enjoyable throwback to the campy fantasy-flicks of yore.
Back story: Rise and fall of guys on strike
"John Carter" filmed at Shepperton Studios and Longcross Studios in England from January to April 2010, and then moved to Utah for 12 weeks of simulated Martian terrain. Throughout, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church suited up in high-tech "stilts" for their motion-capture, CGI roles as 9-foot-tall, four-armed Tharks.
"They strip up your legs, they go up high, and they're adjustable," Dafoe tells Newsday of these exoskeletons. "They've got a little spring in them. The difficulty was sometimes moving fast, so sometimes they'd have to put you on a wire. There was a lot of problem-solving. In one scene I'm laying on the ground and I have to get up -- in that case with wires, but I had to walk [without wires] after that." And whether in studio or on sand, walking was no walk in the park.
"Thomas messed up his hand because one time he took a spill, and there's no good way to fall on those things. The thing is, you try to collapse. Because if you go like this," he says, putting his hands straight out in what's clearly a prelude to broken wrists, "and you try to stop, forget it. And you don't want to fall on your face, so the thing is you really want to fall back, surprisingly enough, and tuck your head."
-- FRANK LOVECE