APOLOGIES, but to talk about John Carter is to talk about a whole lot of backstory. Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1917 novel A Princess of Mars, John Carter is directed by Andrew Stanton, the guy behind two of Pixar's best, Finding Nemo and Wall-E. The screenplay's co-written by Michael Chabon, one of the finest novelists we've got. Chabon and Stanton—like many of the past century's most successful filmmakers, writers, and artists—are lifelong Burroughs dweebs. Stanton's film—which opens this weekend after costing Disney a quarter of a billion dollars—bears the expectations of a whole lot of geeks, is being judged by every accountant in Hollywood, and, like this review, is lamely frontloaded with too much exposition.
But if you're seeing John Carter you should know what you're getting into. In the film, none of its clunky framing story is needed, its repetitive plot machinations are silly, and, from its opening moments, the movie's stuck in an awkward rhythm it never escapes. Throughout, it's obvious Stanton and Chabon are passionate about this story, but in a two-hour film that feels a lot longer, it never becomes apparent why.
Part of that confusion is probably because A Princess of Mars inspired so much that came after it, most notably Star Wars and Avatar, that it can't help but feel tired and bland—it doesn't matter if Princess did this stuff first if everybody else already picked its bones clean. The story's particularly Avatar-esque: Rascally Confederate soldier John Carter (Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch, who, it turns out, is an impressively terrible actor when he isn't playing Tim Riggins) finds a magical cave and gets teleported to Mars. There, the planet's warring races—some of them are green, CG, and have four arms, while the rest of them look like they stepped out of 1980's Flash Gordon—zoom around in airships and squabble over a crappy planet that looks like Utah.
It's not that there are too many moving parts in John Carter, it's that all of the parts are bland gibberish: There's a lot of fretting over Heliumites and Therns and Tharks and Zodongans, and not a single one of them is interesting enough for anyone to care if the Tharks will unite with the Heliumites to fight off the Therns or whatever the fuck. Theoretically, it's impressive that Carter lands on a Mars full of history and racism; in practice, all that backstory is droned on about with all the appeal of The Phantom Menace.
On the upside, John Carter does have Woola, a giant alien pug! Woola is fantastic, the best character in the film, and I would like to adopt him; he's also a far better companion for Tim Riggins than the bland Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a Martian princess with an addiction to henna tattoos. Stanton has defended John Carter's title by noting, probably correctly, that boys wouldn't see a movie with "princess" in the title, while girls wouldn't see a movie with "Mars" in the title; I don't see why The Adventures of Shirtless Tim Riggins and Space Pug was never even considered.
I might be too hard on John Carter—it's not terrible, and when it finally kicks into its climactic action beats, there's a welcome, pulpy, bright exuberance to it. It's too bad the rest of the film doesn't feel like that, rather than a series of too-familiar peaks and valleys: boring stuff, fun stuff, boring stuff, fun stuff, space pug!, boring stuff, Zodongatharks.