'John Carter' review: A slightly better mix of cowboys and aliens than "Cowboys and Aliens"

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'John Carter'

'John Carter'

**1/2 (out of four)

Like that other long-haired, bare-chested hero with the initials J.C., John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) arrives just in time to calm heated alien tempers and save Mars from laser-powered destruction.

OK, maybe the biblical allegory only goes so far. In fact, when Carter introduces himself as “Carter, John Carter,” he brings to mind a much different, more British fighter of evil.

Adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” novels, “John Carter” revolves around the titular Civil War soldier who, with help from a magical medallion, travels from 19th century Virginia to the red planet—which locally goes by the name of Barsoom. There he discovers a newfound leaping ability and meets Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the most beautiful of a race that would look like humans if not for their red-face tattoos. Mike Tyson, we have found a place where residents consider you normal. Or closer to it.

Will audiences see this alien romance-meets-sword-and-sandal epic as an “Avatar”- or “Star Wars”-style fantasy that justifies the film’s 130-minute-plus running time and budget reportedly in excess of $250 million? Questionable.

“John Carter” often feels silly but only occasionally fun, with highlights including John’s much-advertised battle with giant white apes and the sporadic playful sense of humor that results in the ugly green Martians (Barsoomians?) thinking their new hero’s name is Virginia.

Yet when John boldly identifies the daughter of Tars Tarkas or many characters refer to powerful beings as Jeddak regardless of their species, I wanted to ask director/co-writer Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) what the hell he was talking about. All interplanetary fantasies create their own language and universe, as they should. But there’s a difference between a lively, clearly identified world and one in which you can barely tell anyone apart. An arranged marriage subplot became so boring I paid more attention to the astonishing blue eyes of a character who’d rather fight than submit and thus, possibly save her people.

Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) acquits himself fine in a role that may not fuel his movie stardom as much as the upcoming blockbuster “Battleship,” but Stanton definitely doesn’t bring as much confidence and pop to his first live-action film as his fellow Pixar director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) brought to “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.”

Or maybe teenagers of this planet and others will hear Dejah Thoris tell John, “From the moment you caught me in the sky, I knew,” and giggle with delight, rather than just giggling.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

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