Despite a reported budget of $250 million, the new sci-fi fantasy John Carter, opening this weekend, has generated a tidal wave of indifference according to audience tracking studies, leading industry pundits to assume it's doomed at the box office. Critics have been somewhat more forgiving, giving the live-action directorial debut of Pixar wunderkind Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) at least mixed reviews. Among their reactions: "Ridiculously fun" and a "bloated bore." (Watch the trailer below.) The story of a former Civil War soldier transplanted to Mars and tasked with saving the oppressed Martians and their beautiful princess, John Carter, based on 100-year-old stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, features red-skinned humans, 15-foot-tall aliens, six-legged warriors, and gravity defying feats of physical strength. Besides its expensive special effects, the movie offers a cult-favorite lead (Friday Night Lights' brooding Taylor Kitsch). Could its producers possibly earn back their investment?
The film's a hoot: John Carter has one head-spinning plot, says Christopher Orr at The Atlantic. But director Stanton wisely "embraces the inescapable ridiculousness of his premise and adds doses of likable whimsy." There are misfires: Stanton overestimates our eagerness to see Kitsch leap great distances superhumanly, and many Stars Wars-esque action sequences teeter "between homage and plagiarism." But John Carter is the rare film that remembers movie audiences "are there to have fun," and imbues the film with "hokey charm," "a surprising number of witty moments," and perhaps the most adorable alien sidekick to grace cinema in years.
"The hokey fun of John Carter"
Please, it's a mess: John Carter is a "dreary slog of a mess," says Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post. Its baffling plot starts off incoherent and ends up even more confusing. The interminable distance in between is "narratively stilted, visually ugly, and imaginatively bankrupt." With a Pixar alum at the helm, the film should be a fanciful sci-fi adventure. Instead, Stanton paints his version of Mars in bland monotones, orchestrates lame action sequences, and draws a performance from Kitsch that is memorable only for his perpetual shirtlessness.
"This blockbuster self-destructs"
Cut it some slack: This undeniably ambitious movie attempts to visualize a literary work that's influenced "everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar," but has proven understandably hard to film itself, says Keith Phipps at The A.V. Club. The first act admittedly plays out like "a non-fan's nightmare of what science fiction is like," with airships, aliens, and dialogue about "civilizations and technologies." But once the exposition is out of the way, the movie soars as a classic good vs. evil tale, recalling Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark with its union of "of-the-moment technology… and easy thrills of an old B-movie."