Time-traveling superhero John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) trades one civil war for another in a swords-and-sandals flick based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp character. (Disney Studios)
John Carter is from Virginia but he was in Arizona when he wound up on Mars. That was in 1868, but our tale, as unfurled in a 2012 film based on a 1912 story, begins in 1881. And he is its protagonist, although the account is relayed through his young nephew, who, with our disbelief kindly suspended, will grow up to become the prolific pulp fictioneer Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Meanwhile, Burroughs’ swashbuckling sci-fi serial will grow up to become a movie by Wall-E director Andrew Stanton, with writing help from super-powered novelist Michael Chabon, and starring “Friday Night Lights” heartthrob Taylor Kitsch. If John Carter feels ponderously tangled, derivative of Star Wars and Avatar and everything in between (an irony given source material without which those movies might not have existed) well, that’s what a century’s worth of development will do.
Carter is a former Confederate Army captain who finds himself teleported to the red planet, where lesser gravity lets him leap around like a superhero. How he breathes and keeps warm is not explained, but apparently there is an atmosphere on Mars, and it retains at least enough sunshine that a loincloth is all the outerwear one really needs.
Also, there are Martians. They aren’t little green men but big ones, tall and reedy, with four arms and facial tusks. With their brute exoticism and clannish codes of honor, they exude an old colonialist’s idea of noble savagery, as quaintly outdated as the astronomical understanding that inspired their fictive world. But these folks are not the only residents of Barsoom, as Mars is known in the local parlance. In fact the place is overcrowded. It has humans, of sorts, as well, and the problems they bring.
Having tried to put America’s War Between the States behind him, Carter inadvertently catalyzes a war between Martian city states. Theirs is more of a swords-and-sandals affair, if Lynn Collins as the lusciously bikinied scientist-warrior princess is any indication, but we can tell Carter’s up to it. And with a visual scheme so handsomely commensurate with fantasy artist Frank Frazetta’s eye-popping covers for Burroughs’ books, well, who wouldn’t be?
The princess’ father, an affably pudgy Ciaran Hinds, has arranged her marriage to a blandly villainous Dominic West, who’s been terrorizing the planet with powers on loan from passive-aggressively meddling non-Martian aliens led by Mark Strong. And from here it gets complicated.
Living up to reported uncertainty about whether it’ll become a trilogy, John Carter feels hurried and crammed. But the movie, like the man, is lighter on its feet than seems possible. Or at least highly committed to its own pulpy panache. You want to tease it for being so earnest, but there’s no time, too much to take in, so instead you just keep it, and the fistfuls of popcorn, coming.