Mars. As the camera in John Carter makes its way over yet another movie version of the red planet, the voiceover deplores exactly what that set and that camera—and you, by extension—are doing: “So you name it,” the voice says, “And think that you know it.”
That kind of thinking is wrong, you know. And John Carter means to disabuse you of such imperial self-delusions, to show another point of view, to educate you. Mm-hmm. All of which doesn’t quite explain why the primary view here belongs to the hunky man-boy John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-Tarzan character. He actually had “of Mars” attached to his name before Disney got a hold of him, but it’s just as well he’s dropped the affiliation, for the lesson the movie teaches—about naming and not knowing—is underlined in the name that denizens of Mars have for it, Barsoom. John Carter of Barsoom doesn’t have quite the same ring as John Carter of Mars.
Or maybe it does. For the problem with the ostensibly 19th-century version of Mars in John Carter is its exceeding dullness, indeed, its generic-ness. The planet is vaguely reddish, and also flat and dry (exteriors are shot primarily in Utah, reportedly to the alarming tune of $250,000,000), its essential heat providing reason enough for John Carter to show off his abs. At first, his audience is comprised of a population of tall, green, multi-armed figures called the Tharks. Back on earth, he was a disillusioned Confederate soldier, in search of life’s meaning and something like an end to all warfare. He’s transported to Barsoom by the powers of a glowing amulet he’s found on earth by accident. On the new planet, he discovers, the new laws of gravity allow him to leap across wide expanses of desert or city without much ado. (The effect isn’t quite so corny as Ang Lee’s animated Hulk, but it’s in that ballpark.)
The combination of abs and leaping makes John Carter—or Vir-Gin-I-Ya, as his hosts take to calling him, following his effort to affiliate himself with his own home—look superheroic. At least this is the case after he gets past looking like a pet for the Thark who discovers him, Tars Tarkus (a motion-captured Willem Dafoe), who likes to set him up in front of other Tharks and command him to “Jump!”, a directive the cocky human is disinclined to obey.
While the relationship between John Carter and Tars Tarkus is more or less the primary bond in the film, it also happens that the Tharks are in the market for a superhero, or a savior of some sort, as they’re under siege by a bunch of bullies from an area called Zodanga. As John Carter comes to know more about the Tharks’ ongoing state of crisis, he comes to believe he is the one they’ve been waiting for, a point of identification for the sort of boys’ adventure story Burroughs was writing in 1912. He tries to make them say his name, but the Tharks, being adorable reptilian bumblers on the order of Jar-Jar Binks, can’t help but misapprehend that name, and so they take to calling him “Vir-gin-i-ya!”, following his own effort to self-identify.
Virginia thus finds on Barsoom an audience who wants to believe in him. He also finds an object for his own desire, a beautiful and bodacious princess from yet another Barsoomian area (Helium). Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is basically irresistible for John Carter and the boys whose fantasies he embodies, as she’s Red Sonja-like outfits and wields a sword as well as he can. It helps too that she’s also been promised by her father, Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), to the sinister Zodangan prince Sab Than (Dominic West). Just in case you haven’t gleaned the full extent of Sab Than’s badness, he comes equipped with an especially bad influence, a shape-shifting, all-powerful meddler, Matai Shang (Mark Strong as yet another cartoony villain), who comprehends the power of that amulet John Carter found. Now John Carter needs to save the world to get the girl, or vice versa. In any event, he fights.
This fighting is, of course, the movie’s raison d’être. As such, it takes up a lot of energy, special effects, and time. The fighting sometimes veers into homage to Ray Harryhausen who long ago was attached to an iteration of this project, and often recalls movies by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and Jim Cameron and all those other artists who borrowed from Burroughs (this film even manages a convoluted reference to Burroughs, as John Carter reveals his secret story to his nephew, “Ned” Rice Burroughs, played by the perfectly wide-eyed Daryl Sabara). But mostly, the fighting is tedious, a series of hectic clashes that leave no doubt as to their conclusions. John Carter fights with Tars Tarkus’ jealous second, Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church), he fights with Sab Than, and he fights with entire armies, his jumping a helpful means to evade or overcome his opponents.
Of course, you know how all the fighting turns out, because despite John Carter’s status as an outsider, someone who only thinks he knows Mars, he is the white boy hero. In fighting, in conquering the Zodangans, he finds himself. He learns the planet’s correct name and the Tharks learn his. As always happens in such adventures, from Tarzan to Avatar, the imperial project is folded into saving those who need not only to be saved, but also to believe in the project. Jump, Virginia.