Fanboys have been waiting a long time for a bigscreen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars-traveling John Carter character — 100 years, to be exact, since the opening installment of the pulp legend’s Barsoom series was published — with “Wall-E” director Andrew Stanton ultimately being the one to bring his bluescreen vision of the Red Planet to life. But given the enormity of Disney’s investment, “John Carter” will need more than just the faithful to support the franchise the studio has in mind, and this turgid, visually unappealing sci-fi adventure never gets off the ground. As such, profitability feels like pure fantasy.
Though Burroughs’ Tarzan character has spawned countless bigscreen adaptations, his other beloved pulp hero, Civil War officer-turned-intergalactic warlord John Carter, has had far worse luck transitioning to film (unless you count 2009’s straight-to-DVD “Princess of Mars,” starring Traci Lords and Antonio Sabato Jr.). Over the years, several filmmakers imagined using animation, whether hand-drawn (Bob Clampett) or stop-motion (Ray Harryhausen), to bring Burroughs’ various Martian species to life, so it makes sense that Disney would tap one of Pixar’s most prized directors to spearhead the project, which would inevitably demand considerable amounts of CGI.
Yet to watch “John Carter” is to wonder where in this jumbled space opera one might find the intuitive sense of wonderment and awe Stanton brought to “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” Instead of allowing us to discover this incredible alien world, Stanton plunges directly into a sloppy gun battle, wherein what look like flying Roman galleons blast each other with laser cannons, then back to Earth for 20 minutes of Victorian-era exposition.
When Carter (Taylor Kitsch) — whom the pic introduces twice, once as an eccentric globe-trotting treasure hunter, circa 1881, and then 13 years earlier as a surly Arizona gold prospector — finally makes it to Mars, he observes that the locals are far more primitive than the opening-scene tease suggested. That’s because the planet is divided into separate species. The creatures who encounter Carter wandering their desert are Tharks, a race of six-limbed, spear-wielding warriors (motion-capture performed by actors such as Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church).
Though the 9-foot, green-skinned Tharks look much as Burroughs described them, they are curiously unappealing to human eyes, just one of the stylistic decisions that reinforces the accomplishment of James Cameron’s “Avatar.” For the kind of sex appeal that brings teenage libidos to a boil, one need look no further than the Red Martians, especially Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), with her tan skin and henna-style body art.
Writing a century ago, Burroughs saw a world in which racial conflicts would threaten world harmony, and some version of this idea plays out in the film as rival Red Martian clans — beautiful Dejah on one side, sadistic Sab Than (Dominic West) on the other — battle for a mysterious blue power supply controlled by yet another species, the discord-seeking Therns (headed by a shapeshifting Mark Strong).
Stanton and fellow screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon from the outset ignore the importance of audience identification. When Carter awakens on Mars to find that the gravity allows him to jump great distances, we should be experiencing that discovery through his eyes. Instead, the movie has no point of view, unspooling with the same stodgy distance favored by mid-century sword-and-sandal pics.
Burroughs provided scant backstory for Carter, a perfectly fine strategy for a character who will ultimately be defined by his actions (see Sergio Leone’s “The Man With No Name” trilogy). But the filmmakers decided Carter should be haunted by a dark personal tragedy he will later need to overcome, supplying flashbacks nearly identical to scenes from last summer’s “Cowboys and Aliens.”
Of course, working from such widely influential source material poses an impossible challenge: How to make elements that have inspired some of the greatest science-fiction storytellers seem fresh? In places, the film seems to be borrowing directly from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, when the truth is, neither “Star Wars” nor Indiana Jones would exist had Burroughs not come before.
Still, those filmmakers understood how to make their movies iconic. Stanton has been given the resources to create an expansive, expensive world, but lacks the instincts to direct live-action, a limitation that shows most in the performances. Bare of chest and fair of feature, Kitsch doesn’t exhibit enough charisma to carry a project of this scale.
The movie begs a strong, unifying musical theme, but the best that Michael Giacchino can muster is a vaguely “Lawrence of Arabia”-sounding score, while the designs of everything from Martian cities to alien life forms lack the visionary qualities that lodge in one’s imagination, much less spark toy sales and theme-park attendance.