Edgar Rice Burroughs first published his novel A Princess of Mars in serial form, under the title Under the Moons of Mars, exactly 100 years ago, and various Hollywood studios have been working on turning it into a feature film for at least 80 of those 100 years. At long last, it has been produced by Walt Disney Pictures under the punishingly anonymous title John Carter, the rotten cherry atop a pestilential sundae of one of the worst marketing campaigns in the entire history of the tentpole movie. The film buried underneath those shriekingly awful trailers and TV spots is better than it looks - how could it fail to be, short of dropping Uwe Boll in the director's chair? - but not so much better that it counts as some kind of lost diamond, unfairly mismanaged into oblivion. It is, to be frank, the movie that a title like John Carter deserves: marked, above all other things, by the sheer averageness of the whole affair in every way. Though in this case the curve for "average" is skewed a bit by an already-legendary $250 million price tag that mostly shows up on screen, providing dumbfounding sci-fi vistas in admirable quantity if not quite in creativity.

At heart, this is an extremely direct story: a Civil War veteran, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is hunting for gold in the Arizona Territory when he encounters a strange bald man in grey; this man holds an amulet that ends up zapping Carter to the dry surface of Mars, which is called by the natives "Barsoom". Here, Carter encounters a race of four-armed, ten-foot-tall green-skinned warriors called Tharks, as well as two different nations of apparent human beings, conveniently color-coded into good (blue) and bad (red) guys, with the chief good guy being the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who fights with a sword like nobody's business while wearing improbably slight outfits. At first Carter just wants to survive; then he just wants to get back to Earth; then he is touched by the plight of the blues and uses his superpowers (his terrestrial muscles and skeleton make him inordinately strong and able to make Superman-like leaps across the Martian landscape) to help them win their war against the reds.

That's like every other movie ever made, and it says something for how outrageously huge Burroughs's series of Carter novels have been that the template they provided for otherworldly adventure a full century ago is still so damn familiar; we all know by now that A Princess of Mars was in the DNA of Avatar, just as surely as Avatar's indescribable box office success was the reason that John Carter finally saw the light of day, and why it took the exact form it did. For it is quite an unashamed post-Avatar picture, a fact that unlike many people, I take to be descriptive rather than condemnatory. It's sure as hell not as good as Avatar, but that's not the same thing.

But as I was saying, the plot is tremendously simple, easy-to-follow stuff, which makes it confusing and frustrating that the filmmakers have turned it into something so chaotic and overstuffed and stretched-out and messy. The film opens with a Mars-based prologue, then skips to an Earth-based postlude set after Carter's death in 1881, attending on his nephew's discovery of his Mars diary - that nephew being none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), who was actually six in 1881, but no matter. The point is that we have two entire time periods and 15 minutes of screentime before the plot even begins in roughly the exact same way it would do if those sequences were cut away, and with a leaden 132-minute running time, John Carter desperately needed to shed whatever dead weight it could. The frame narrative with Burroughs is merely an unnecessary frippery; the Mars sequence at the start is a positive misfire, combining an inscrutable exposition dump that throws more made-up names at the wall than one can quite handle with so little warm-up; pre-WWII science fiction, like aerobics, demands some stretching before you can jump into things like Tharks and the predatory city Zodanga and Tandos Mors of Helium.

The story takes ages before it even starts to pick up any shape, and it never really manages to hit a reasonable pace: the first two-thirds are the most galling sort of "this happens, and also this happens, and that is the order in which they happened" hopscotching from one location and set of visually distinct characters to the next; not until Carter visits the Magic Explaining Place and commits himself to fighting for peace and justice on Barsoom do the various plot threads start to cohere and build momentum, and even at its best, this isn't a tremendously unique or edifying adventure movie: Kitsch's inflexible hard-ass performance as Carter has a lot to do with that, as does the lack of unity in the various ideas that the filmmakers come up with. And the needlessly redundant narrative (an echo of the story's serial origins) just makes things worse.

This could be just another impersonal wannabe blockbuster with too much plot vying with too much production design (it's powerfully like last summer's Green Lantern in that respect, as in others) - indeed, that's what it is - but what makes it galling is that this particular impersonal wannabe was directed by Andrew Stanton, one of the top-shelf directors at Pixar, and a man who has previously developed a flair for concise, visual storytelling that John Carter demonstrates in no respect: seriously, how does a fella go from the opening 30 minutes of WALL·E to this in less than four years? That film was everything John Carter is not: tightly-paced, visually precise, compact and sentimental. It surely can't just be that Stanton didn't know his way around a live-action set, given how much of John Carter is CGI; more that he got drunk on the epic sweep of the story and then got even drunker on the absurdly free hand he was given to throw untold amounts of Disney's money at creating this film.

Good for him, I guess; the results certainly look expensive, though not terribly imaginative. The costume designs by Mayes C. Rubio are probably the best thing here, all gleaming metal and pulp sensibility, with Nathan Crowley's huge, impossible-in-reality sets running a close second. It doesn't feel like entering another world entirely, as the best sci-fi does, only like watching a really well-appointed movie, but that is charming in its own limited way. Of far greater concern are the somewhat shaky quality of the CGI effects (Pixar contributed exactly fuck-all to this project), and the immensely clumsy editing that buzzes along with a machine gun speed not remotely like the slow waltz of images in WALL·E and Finding Nemo; every time there is action, it abruptly becomes impossible to figure out what's going on for a little bit. And as long as we're talking about the things that don't work, Michael Giacchino's score is a remarkable disappointment from a strong composer; bland and trumpety and like pretty much every adventure movie of the last decade, though there are a couple of motifs that work better than the rest.

Regardless of the little things that are good or bad, the overwhelming feeling is of the purely average: routine performances of stock characters from people who should know better (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West; only Collins manages to really drag something interesting out of her role, though West at least seems to enjoy being a robust melodramatic villain), glorious CGI vistas that look a lot like other glorious CGI vistas, plot points that you can map out almost to the minute by the ten-minute mark. It is filmmaking as product, not as art; it is exactly the square bit of business promised by that bland title, with no pulp excess and not speculative ingenuity. I'd feel sorrier about Stanton's big coming-out party getting spoilt by witheringly poor box office if it wasn't so clear that he needed to learn a lesson.