Film rewind: 'John Carter': It's all Martian to me

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

Now playing:

“John Carter”

2 out of 4 stars

132 minutes

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton.

Now playing at West Theatre in Craig and Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas in Steamboat Springs.

Not everyone gets to own a pet that has the look of a bulldog mixed with a salamander mixed with a bionic cheetah. Then again, the titular man of “John Carter” isn’t your average fellow, even if he becomes less distinct as the years go by.

In 1868, ex-Confederate Army Capt. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is seeking to rebuild his life after having it torn apart by the Civil War. Caught up between military and Apaches in the Arizona Territory, the hopeful prospector finds more than gold in them thar hills when he is accidentally transported to a mysterious other world.

Encountering the Tharks, towering, green-skinned, six-limbed, beings with tusks, Carter learns he is on the planet Barsoom, which he knows as Mars. The Earthman’s physiology gives him an increased strength and a lower gravitational pull, making him a formidable fighter against anyone who may wish to take him on.

But, while the Tharks are impressed by his abilities, the princess (Lynn Collins) of another race of Martians believes he may be nothing less than the savior of the world, who can bring peace between battling factions headed by a ruthless warlord (Dominic West).

“Friday Night Lights” star Kitsch jumps to his biggest movie part yet and isn’t too bad as the stubborn former soldier who trades his gray uniform for a leather and metal harness and a loincloth. As easily as his extraordinary new skills come to him in his new surroundings, it’s got to be pretty emasculating when the aliens he befriends seem to think his name is Virginia, Carter’s place of origin.

The cultural differences aren’t as great with Dejah, the royal girl whose cause he halfheartedly takes up. Collins is fine as the typical wayward lass in need of rescue, though the main requirement for this role must have been the willingness to wear a costume skimpier than Princess Leia’s metal slave bikini.

Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, who’s been in no less than 10 movies in the last 18 months, has one of his smaller parts as her father, the Jeddak (king) of Helium, negotiating with callous West for a truce between their realms, little realizing his rival is being manipulated by outside forces. Mark Strong is characteristically cold as the man behind the struggle, one of the Therns, an omnipotent, shape-shifting group intent on destruction.

As for the tribe not caught up in all the politics, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church provide the Tharks with considerable poise, although we’ve seen these not-so-little green men and women in other forms.

A movie that comes off as “Avatar” meets “Cowboys & Aliens” meets “Gladiator” actually has roots reaching back nearly a century.

“Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs — here portrayed by Daryl Sabara as Carter’s favorite nephew — came up with the “Barsoom” series way back in the golden age of science fiction.

Even so, that can’t prevent some of the similarities to other recent features.

Considering Burroughs was a personal friend of Walt Disney, a film like this would have been much more amazing when the entertainment mogul was still alive and kicking. With unlimited technological capabilities today, capturing the Red Planet is a snap and though people have been trying to get Burroughs’ works filmed for decades, it may have been more worthwhile for them to keep waiting until they could actually film it on Mars.

Admittedly, the Utah desert fills in for the desolate, dusty world in a pinch, but the movie suffers horribly from bigger-than-big sets and characters who feel and look fake.

The massively overproduced “John Carter” can’t keep up in a business where alien flicks are a dime a dozen, and few of its competitors come close to its $250 million price tag.

The scary part is knowing a good chunk of that money went to spray tans.

Now playing at West Theatre in Craig and Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas in Steamboat Springs.

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