Disney’s US$250 million intergalactic swords and sandals spectacle, replete with all the trimmings of blockbustepic excess, arrives hungry to mess with seen-it-before audiences who think they have the genre of spacey SCI-FI fantasies down pat. John Carter face plants into a stuffed trough of genres and sub-genres, new and old, and emerges covered in a thousand flecks of storytelling tinctures.

Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall.E) could easily have found himself feeding the belly of a turkey too fat to support its own legs — slow, clunky, stupid — but manages to keep a spectacular beast of a movie fast-footed despite missing opportunities to trim some fat from the bone.

In a manner far more innovative than similarly epic-sized SCI-FIs, John Carter’s story sidesteps and subverts expectations, establishing contexts then breezily cheating them, as if to dare the audience to ponder what they’re watching and in which cultural galaxy it resides. There’s a smattering of hat tips to visionaries from George Lucas to HP Lovecraft, and the sets, settings and special effects necessary to make the movie glisten in trailers and one-sheets.

The opening scene is a Star Trekian battle on a roofless spaceship. Then we’re whisked to 19th century London where a child opens a journal left to him by a deceased relative. Don’t get comfortable: we are transported to the cowboys and Indians world of the journal and its writer, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), in civil war America. Don’t rest yet: on the run from Indians, Carter enters sacred ground and is magically bounced to Mars, where the story’s world-within-a-world-within-a-world setting exists.

Carter discovers an ability to take gigantic gravity-defying superhero-like leaps across the landscape. Similar to Robin Williams exploring a fantastic purgatory in What Dreams May Come, he lands in a new world with strange new powers, and those new powers, like in Gulliver’s Travels, make him a valuable and powerful commodity.

Soon Carter is trapped in a community of Tharks, green four-armed aliens caught in the middle of a war between more advanced species. Carter teams up with the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is trying to escape an arranged marriage being floated as a chance for warring clans to make peace. There are also shape shifting Lovecraft-like creatures who seem to get their kicks from messing with fractured civilisations. None of the alien creatures — and there are many — are the cutesy cookie cutter Happy Meal variety. They live in politicised environments divided by war and ideology.

It sounds like geeked-out SCI-FI, and it is, to a point, based on an early 1900’s novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs that employed oodles of plot devices long before they became deeply familiar. In a contemporary context there’s a smorgasbord of pop culture sign posts dotted across the landscape, from The Never Ending Story to Conan the Barbarian, Star Wars, Gladiator, John Wayne westerns, Buck Rogers — too many breadcrumbs to track. In its endless ambition to canvass universes and realities, its anachronistic blending of fantasy and SCI-FI sets, settings and time frames, John Carter reflects the hammy cult film Yor: The Hunter from the Future, which bounded from Xena-style primitive desert wandering to spacey environments with futurists helmets, sterilised corridors, laser guns, etcetera.

Pockets of narrative innovation push John Carter ahead of many of its pulpy peers. If it isn’t as accessible as a cut-and-dry SCI-FI adventure, it’s not because of the story but because of the narrative, how the plot is framed and executed. The finale beautifully and boldly brings the story-within-a-book narrative device into the internal logic of the film instead of letting it rest as a lazy bookend. Last minute “endings” act as narrative sleights, springboards to send the story hurtling into different, unpredictable realms. Some story developments would make George Lucas jealous, lip-licking the taste of what he might have added to the proceedings.

Pace and structure wise John Carter is caught between a moon rock and a hard place. There are bits that could have been trimmed and yet the film feels like it could have been expanded at least another half hour, tangents and back stories that clearly didn’t make the cut for the sake of (relative) brevity (the running time is 118 minutes).

If John Carter flops at the box office — and early signs suggests such a fate is more than likely — it will be discovered some day, on some planet, and rightfully celebrated as a smart beer and peanuts romp. What could have been a simple linear plot was chopped up and re-arranged with a bold energy that can be misinterpreted as chaotic, the mad genius of a film that takes devices buried beneath mountains of dust and detritus and passes them off as new.

John Carter’s Australian theatrical release date: March 8, 2012.

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