You’ve already seen this sci-fi thriller – many times before. Based on “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first installment of his 1912 pulpy adventure series about a Civil War veteran who winds up battling evil forces on Mars, it combines recognizable elements of “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “Dune,” “Flash Gordon” and, above all, “Avatar.”
When battle-scarred Confederate officer John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) suddenly finds himself on Mars, that desert-like planet – called Barsoom by locals – is being ravaged by a tribal war between the kingdom of Helium and the airborne Zodangans, manipulated by malevolent, shape-shifting Matai Shang (Mark Strong). To put an end to the fighting, Helium’s Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) agrees to the betrothal of his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), to evil Zodangan Prince Sab Than (Dominic West).
After discovering his astonishing physical prowess due to Mars’ weaker gravity, jumping John Carter befriends toweringly thin, four-armed, spear-throwing Thanks, whose leaders (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton) function as Noble Savages, like James Cameron’s Na’vi. Then the Earthling meets henna-tattooed Princess Dejah Thoris and becomes her intergalactic champion, so the action-packed mythology goes.
Making his live-action debut, Pixar writer/director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”) was able to indulge his production design perfectionism with an astronomical $250 million budget, incorporating more than 2,000 visual effects shots created by four companies. As for Canada’s Taylor Kitsch (TV’s “Friday Night Lights”), knowing he was a former Abercrombie & Fitch model tells you everything: he postures, poses and growls, not unlike a Calot, Mars’ lumbering, dog-like creature.
Long on the planning boards, this potential franchise had a myriad of false starts since the 1980s, when Disney acquired movie rights from the Burroughs estate. Inexplicably, the company angered devoted fans by deciding not to preview at Comic-Con International and removing the word “Mars” from the title, out of fear of alienating women and evoking memories of “Mars Needs Moms.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “John Carter” is a surprisingly humorless, unevenly jumbled, fantasy 5. Blame it on solar flares.