The title character of Disney's John Carter is a surly Civil War-vet, prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory of 1868 - a place he calls "the backside of hell."
Wait until he wakes up on the backside of Mars if he really wants to find hell: A desert planet where warring species - green four-armed giants called Tharks, the battling humanlike citizens of Helium and Zodanga, the Therns, the White Apes, the toothy Cro-Magnon critters called Warhoons - seem intent on destroying one another and the orb they call home.
A lavish, but lumbering, green-screen adaptation of the first installment in Edgar Rice Burroughs "Barsoom" series (The Princess of Mars, published 100 years ago), John Carter stars Taylor Kitsch as the Eastwoodian cowboy thrown into an alien world. When he first awakens on Barsoom (what the natives call Mars), the long-haired hero takes a few tentative "What the . . . ?" steps and discovers he can leap vast stretches of the rocky terrain. Yes, it's the gravity of the situation.
Director Andrew Stanton, director of the Pixar hits Finding Nemo and Wall-E (and working in live-action for the first time), has found an aptly named leading man. John Carter is about as kitsch as you can get, although Kitsch manages to keep his scowl in place as a planeload of British thespians, decked out in armor and plumage, offer mock-Shakespearean pronouncements of animus and portent. For the record, the Brits (and Irish) involved in this epically cheesy fantasy include Mark Strong (a power-mad priest named Matai Shang), Dominic West (the Prince of Zodanga), Ciarán Hinds (as Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium), and James Purefoy (worried captain of a flying gunship).
More interesting for Carter, whom the Tharks call "Virginia" (a running joke, derived from the fact he hails from the Southern state), is the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the bronzed and tattooed royal leading her people in a desperate quest for peace among the disparate parties of Barsoom. It isn't long before Carter and Thoris are side by side, swashing buckles against bad guys, and exchanging deep looks of desire.
John Carter, presented in both 3-D and 2-D versions, is a sword-and-sandals spectacle infused with retro sci-fi beasts and blarney. It would have made a great Technicolor treat in the 1950s, say, with stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen and a strapping Steve Reeves as the intergalactic Confederate army hero. And that's kind of the aesthetic that Stanton is going for: over-the-top pulp. But there's something generic about the digitally rendered Martians (whatever their stripe and skin tone), and there's a corniness to the dialogue that keeps the audience from any kind of emotional attachment to the Tharks and Zodangans and their ilk.