When the Disney folks decided to drop the last two words from the title “John Carter of Mars,” they were left with the blandest, least informative name of any big-budget film in living memory. Sure, “Shrek” and “Forrest Gump” were equally uninformative, but at least they sounded unusual. “John Carter,” on the other hand, is one iota more distinctive than (the nonexistent) Jack Smith or Jim Johnson. There's a reason Spielberg and Lucas gave Prof. Hank Jones a colorful nickname.
And the title character has hardly been a household name during the last few decades. As an adolescent, my dad read the Edgar Rice Burroughs “Mars” series when they first came out; and, as an adolescent, I read them, back when their fall into public domain status prompted multiple cheap paperback reprints. I suspect the last few decades of adulthood might have made me less receptive to their charms on rereading. If there were many charms in the film to be unreceptive toward, I missed them altogether. The only character worth caring about is the slobbery, SUV-sized dog.
For the first half, the plot stays pretty close to the book. Cynical Civil War vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is searching for a legendary cave of gold in Arizona when he is mysteriously transported to Mars. Because the red planet's gravity is lighter, he discovers he's a sort of superman — he can leap tall buildings in a single bound and throw rocks a mile away.
Thanks to these abilities — and his nobleness of spirit and all — he quickly becomes a player in Barsoomian (the equivalent of “Martian” in the local language) power struggles. And, of course, he falls in love with plucky, gorgeous warrior princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), daughter of Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), leader of the losing city-state. As a sign of surrender, T. Mors has promised his daughter's hand in marriage to Sab Than (Dominic West), a prince from the victorious side. And all this mishegoss is being orchestrated by the mysterious, creepily calm, presumably evil Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
With the appearance of Matai Shang, things really start to diverge from the original. The action in the book suggested a cross between a swashbuckler and a western. Director Andrew Stanton and screenwriters Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews have emphasized the science-fiction elements, adding all sorts of technology.
In the book, Carter's trip from Mars was vaguely spiritual in nature: During an out-of-body experience, he more or less wills his astral body to Mars. In the movie, it's a triumph of engineering rather than spirit, with an ancient medallion and some sort of mechanical hyperspace time bridge teleportation thingie that enables his planet-hopping.
Despite an explanatory voiceover at the beginning, the complicated internal politics of Barsoom are made even more confusing by the presence of moles and traitors within every camp. And, by the time one of the principals starts shape-shifting all over the place, you really need a scorecard to keep track.
If this had been released 15 or 20 years ago, it might have been far more exciting. But during those years so many films have used all the same devices that nothing here seems fresh. If you've seen, say, “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Thor” (or even “Stargate,” which is already almost 20 years old), you've seen all that John Carter has to offer ... and much of it better.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times