1. I know that the main reason John Carter exists right now is because the technology is available to produce it, that you can have armies of CGI characters that don't look ridiculous, that you can invent sprawling vistas of Mars desert, that you can have spaceships crash into spaceships crash into spaceships and it all looks "real," or at least the way we've all sort of collectively decided to pretend that CGI looks "real." But John Carter has no business in the right now, and it certainly has no business looking "real." The John Carter stories are older than freaking Tarzan, full of imagination and possibility and hokey derring-do, the sort of tales that beg to be dramatized in 10-minute newsreel shorts, blaring "ADVENTURE!" and "DANGER!" and "TRUE TALES OF HEROISM." John Carter is a film that needs to be light on its feet. It needs to be fun. John Carter is a lot of things, but what it is not is "fun."
2. The story of John Carter is a basic one: He's a Confederate soldier who stumbles across a portal to Mars, where he discovers, because of the gravity, he can leap and jump and fight better than Mars' inhabitants. (Oh, Mars has a ton of inhabitants. Gives him something to do.) You really don't need much more background to John Carter than that; he's not a particularly interesting character, and he's not meant to be. He's meant to be a guy who fights aliens and bad guys and kisses the sexy princess and saves the universe. But for cripes sake, for some reason, this movie treats his backstory like he's Bruce Wayne or something. The first 45 minutes is all dull, dreary buildup, with the heavy-handed exposition of a late-era Star Wars provincial council meeting. It is a plodding bore. Just get to Mars already.
3. The movie picks up a bit once Carter makes it to Mars, but just barely. I don't quite understand why a space-opera yarn is so darned serious, but John Carter sure is. Carter meets his princess and enlists local aliens (called "tharks," amusingly; that Edgar Rice Burroughs came up with that name for his alien species sort of makes me love him) to help the good tribe defeat the evil tribe, but none of it really pops. It all feels like warmed-over Avatar, a comparison I'm sure drives fans of the Burroughs books to rage. Avatar borrowed heavily from the books' "white earthling goes native, becomes hero" plotline—and the Nav'i feel like a direct descendant of the tharks—so what feels derivative here, in actuality, came first. Of course, this film exists because of the success of Avatar, and it it has many of that film's problems (dull lead character, long streams of nerd-interminable dialogue, a determined, fatal self-importance) and none of its strengths (legitimately thrilling actions sequences, a true believer's sense of wonder, an invented world that feels fully realized). All told, this is an Avatar knockoff. It's why it's here.
4. Not to put too much into this, but you can sort of tell the problem with John Carter in its title. It's John Carter, not John Carter from Mars. To make this work, you have to play up the pulpy goodness, the INVADERS FROM SPACE! silliness, give it a little Mars Attacks! But director Andrew Stanton, perhaps overwhelmed by the assignment of a massive, $200 million tentpole blockbuster, feels obliged to hit every audience demographic button, from "love story" to "children's film" to "action adventure." It ends up feeling half-hearted, non-committed; it never seems to be enjoying itself all that much. Either a sprawling ambitious all-things-to-all-people epic like this needs to have a spry spirit, or it needs a genuine sense of awe. John Carter has neither. It just sort of sits there.
5. I'm overdoing it here: This isn't a total disaster. There's a clever, unexpected twist at the end that might be the first time a film of this scale has used the "modern-day" framing device to good effect. Taylor Kitsch, most famous for Friday Night Lights, isn't the most dynamic actor, but he's got the sort of lunkheaded charm of, say, Chris Hemsworth; I can see him being an inoffensive enough leading man in the right role, maybe a Chris Pine Lite. John Carter has a cute alien-dog best friend; I liked him. But honestly, this is the type of film that results when someone says, "Find me another Avatar." Whatever your thoughts about Avatar, that film was deeply felt, an actual vision from a skilled technical filmmaker. Stanton, a Pixar vet, has his share of vision, but this thing feels focus-grouped within an inch of its life. Rather than zero in on what makes John Carter such a lasting story for 13-year-old boys of all ages, Stanton and company just throw in everything, stacking up 137 minutes of running time with little meat to sustain it. They should have just let their freak flag fly and said, "To hell with it, here's 100 minutes of John Carter punching aliens." Fifty years ago, maybe they would have.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.