On a surface level, there’s much that Andrew Stanton‘s John Carter gets right — much more than you’d expect, given Disney’s exasperatingly incompetent marketing campaign. The visual effects are imaginative and seamless, the action is appropriately flashy, and the source material by Edgar Rice Burroughs seems rich enough in mythology to make even the most jaded sci-fi and fantasy geek drool. All of that, however, can’t make up for the fact that beyond its intricate trappings, John Carter feels oddly hollow. Somehow, the director who once brought us Finding Nemo and Wall-E fails to evoke emotion in his first live-action outing.

Based on Burroughs’ highly influential A Princess of Mars, John Carter centers around the titular Confederate Civil War vet (Taylor Kitsch), who’s transported through mysterious means to Mars (though its local inhabitants call it Barsoom). Once there, Carter falls in with the Thark tribe — a spindly people with green skin and four arms each — befriending Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe) and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton).

Then he tries to rescue the lovely, humanoid Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) from an aerial skirmish, and gets caught up in her far-reaching quest to save the planet from the brutish leader Sab Than (Dominic West) and the cryptic, sinister Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who pulls his strings.

As princess-warrior-scientist Dejah, Collins is easily the film’s bright spot. Spirited, whip-smart, athletic, and, yes, extremely comely, Dejah embodies the ideal of the sci-fi leading lady, but it’s Collins that makes Dejah more than the sum of those parts. Collins’ confident work renders even the most absurd alien languages believable, and her energy lights up every scene she’s in. I would’ve happily watched an entire feature centered just around her character. Too bad she’s stuck playing second fiddle to the much duller Kitsch.

Though Kitsch’s easygoing, slow-burn charm served him well through five seasons of Friday Night Lights, the blandly heroic John Carter would’ve been better served by an actor with more verve and color. The agile Kitsch is at his best when he’s literally in motion — flailing, leaping, punching, slicing — but at his worst when he’s plodding through the cliched dialogue. Efforts to enrich the character with flashbacks revealing his tragic Earthbound story fall short because there doesn’t seem to be much going on behind John Carter’s eyes.

Still, John Carter‘s missteps aren’t all Kitsch’s fault. I’m told that the cinematic adaptation portrays a heavily streamlined version of Burroughs’ original story, but there’s still far too much going on. Complicated, otherworldly adventures work best when they’re anchored by a simple idea or theme at its core; Lord of the Rings, for example, took us to all manner of fantastical lands without losing track of who Frodo was or what he hoped to accomplish on his journey. In contrast, it’s never clear what John Carter is actually about. I don’t mean that the Barsoomian politics are difficult to follow, though they are elaborate, but that we never get a strong sense of what it is John Carter wants. Or, for that matter, why we ought to care. As you might imagine, this makes the 132-minute runtime drag somewhat.

If John Carter fails to engage on an emotional level, though, it still works reasonably well as a lightweight sci-fi adventure. Stanton doesn’t shy away from complex mythology, snazzy technology, or fearsome monsters, and he has the budget to bring it all to life. If you’re the kind of person who can enjoy a large-scale, CG-heavy battle sequence without worrying about the particulars of who’s fighting and why, John Carter has several thrilling examples. And though the general Barsoomian landscape may not look all that different from the American southwest, the cities, structures, and people do; visually, there’s a lot here to capture the imagination.

Then there’s the fact that John Carter, for all its flaws, is clearly a labor of love. Even if you haven’t heard the tales of A Princess of Mars‘ long, bumpy road to the big screen, or listened to the cast and crew wax rhapsodic about Burroughs’ work, there’s so much exquisite texture and detail on display that it’s obvious the movie was made with great care. A handful of poetic moments even offer glimpses of the artistry we’ve come to expect from Stanton. There is heart to be found in the odd, alien world of John Carter. Unfortunately, it’s in the making-of rather than in the film itself.

A final word of note: If you were thinking of shelling out for the postconverted 3D, don’t bother. You won’t notice the extra dimension at all.

/Film rating: 6.0 out of 10.00

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