The best that can be said of John Carter, Disney’s $250 million adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 novel Princess of Mars, is that it won’t give you a headache. Its special effects are integrated into the story and never become visually or aurally assaultive, as they often do in such sci-fi extravaganzas. That story, unfortunately, is boring in spite of its ridiculousness.
The titular Civil War veteran (Taylor Kitsch), for reasons that are thankfully not dwelled upon, gets transported from the American Southwest to Mars, which the locals call Barsoom. There he discovers that due to the difference in gravity he can jump really high, but before long he’s being captured, put into an arena with giant ape-like beasts, and made into a military leader. The Martian (sorry, Barsoomian) politics in which he becomes embroiled involve enmity between “red” people who mostly look Caucasian and green creatures called Tharks, who have tusks, four arms, and the voices of actors you might amuse yourself by trying to identify before the closing credits. There’s also conflict within the red race, between those who seek to plunder the environment and those who want to restore it, as well as some demigod-like beings whose motives remain very murky.
Woven among all the intrigue and feats of derring-do is a relationship that can scarcely be called a romance, between Carter and Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium (Lynn Collins). The film presents the princess as Carter’s equal, a heroine who is strong in both body and will, and Collins matches Kitsch with an athletic performance. But there isn’t an atom of chemistry between them. The pulpy source material has been neutered in the interest of a PG-13 rating and its attendant audience maximization. There are ways to give a chaste film sexual undercurrents, but here the leads’ admiration for each other’s strength barely rises to the level of flirting.
Admiration of strength seems to be the film’s raison d’être. Kitsch doesn’t act so much as pose, making John Carter an aesthetic appreciation of the idealized male form, like staring at Michaelangelo’s David for 132 minutes. This fetishization is charming on a camp level. Otherwise, the film’s sense of humor is mostly of a broad variety designed to appeal to its youngest viewers, in the form of a dog-like creature that becomes a sort-of sidekick to Carter and the running gag in which the Tharks mistake Carter’s home, Virginia, for his name.
With John Carter, director Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, WALL•E) makes his (partial) live-action debut. He has assembled the movie cleanly, including a neat wraparound story featuring Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara) as Carter’s nephew. But a special-effects blockbuster is doing something wrong when it comes off as merely pleasant. On the other hand, this undemanding time-waster provides plenty of space to ruminate over things like its color scheme. Maybe there’s something to the fact that the good guys have blue flags, the bad guys red, and the green race comes to the rescue. Add to that the ecological component of the plot and Lou Dobbs has a target for his next tirade.