Much has been made of the fact that “John Carter” was going to be called “John Carter of Mars” before someone at Disney decided the “of Mars” part would lessen the film’s appeal to girls, who presumably aren’t interested in science-fiction. Just imagine if they’d gone with the title of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel the film is based on: “A Princess of Mars.” Not only is that more intriguing than “John Carter,” it’s also a better reflection of the movie, which has a strong, charismatic princess character and a bland John Carter character.
It’s a shame that Burroughs’ work, which influenced so much of the 20th century’s science-fiction, would be turned into a movie that feels like a weak imitation of 20th-century science-fiction. There’s a similar paradox in the fact that while this is the first live-action movie from animation whiz Andrew Stanton (who directed “Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”), it feels shallower and more cartoonish than anything he did at Pixar. By all rights this ought to be a smashing sci-fi adventure, not a second-tier throwaway.
John Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch, a hunky brooder who beguiled many a lady on TV’s “Friday Night Lights” but who, as an action hero, has the screen presence of a dirt clod. Carter, a Civil War veteran roaming the West in the 1870s, is a man without a cause now. His wife and daughter were slain during the war; Carter has had enough of fighting. But he finds something new to believe in when he’s transported to Mars, where a battle among that planet’s various races may benefit from his assistance. You will recognize the archetype from “Dances with Wolves,” “Avatar,” “The Last Samurai,” and plenty of others (many of which, again, can at least partially trace their roots back to Burroughs).
How does Carter know which side deserves his help? It’s the side with the beautiful princess, obviously. She is Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a fierce warrior whose father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), is going to make her marry the arrogant Sab Than (Dominic West), a prince from the opposing side, in order to maintain peace between the kingdoms. While these two groups grapple for dominance, a third species, the tall, green, four-armed Tharks, live on the frontier with primitive weapons and an ancient code of honor. Carter falls in with the Tharks first, before finding his true calling with Dejah and her people.
There are also beings called Therns that are immortal and can shape-shift. You can tell the Therns are bad news because one of them is played by Mark Strong.
I have a hard time mustering enthusiasm for anything about the movie, which is too long and episodic. But I can’t work up the energy to actively dislike it, either. The action sequences whizz by at an acceptable clip, the dialogue is generally serviceable, and the Martian world looks nifty in a way that would probably seem even niftier if I were 8. The abundant CGI is flatly unconvincing; the humans and their non-human surroundings never feel like they’re actually sharing the same space. More than anything, “John Carter” resembles the “Star Wars” prequels: busily adventurous, packed with exotic creatures and boys-in-the-sandbox playfulness, and altogether kind of fake.
C+ (2 hrs., 12 min.; )