John Carter is a bloated sci-fi epic made watchable by swell effects, passable performances and those little dashes of humor that reassure us the filmmakers know this is all a lark — no matter what the budget. It begins as a Western, veers into sci-fi and finally finds its footing as a blend of those, with a dash of sword and sorcery — a Confederate cavalryman slashing and hacking beasties and baddies all over the dusty, dying Red Planet just after America's Civil War.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the John Carter of Mars stories, appears as a character, a young would-be writer (Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids) reading the journal of his late uncle (Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War vet searching for gold out West who stumbled instead into another Civil War — a thousand years old and millions of miles away on Mars, which is where John Carter wakes up and asks, "Where the hell am I?"
He lands in the end game of the Martian Civil War, the final battle between two cities — Helium and the mobile city of Zodanga, which grinds from place to place on a gigantic crawler. Shape-shifting pan-dimensional beings (led by Mark Strong) have set up Zodanga (led by Dominic West) to deflate Helium (led by Ciaran Hinds).
The armies are clad in gear borrowed from the ancient Romans and flit about in huge, fragile solar-powered flying galleys. There's scientist-Princess Dejah (Lynne Collins, who wears the obligatory alien-princess-bare-midriff look well) about to be forcibly married off to Sab Than (West) to bring peace.
Unless Carter, who has swagger — and great leaping abilities on the lower gravity of Mars — intervenes. First, he has to get away from the Tharks, four-armed green nomads who stand 12 feet tall and practice a Spartan brand of warrior culture. They brand each other over any offense to the community and practice infanticide.
Kitsch brings a robust manliness to Carter, whom we meet during his brawling prospecting/Indian-fighting days in the Old West. He also has a light touch, which he'll need in the midst of all this — um — kitsch.
John Carter is hampered by the staggering amount of exposition that this "introduction of the myth" installment must take care of — races, tribes, names, religions, Martian science about "The Ninth Ray."
It's a popcorn movie, but even by those standards, John Carter is a bit of a slog: characters and relationships and conflicts and plot devices to keep track of, none of them worth the brain power you spend sorting them out.
But Kitsch & Co. make the time pass pleasantly enough. Just try to forget the too-easy comparisons to Mars Needs Moms and Cowboys vs. Aliens, and you'll be fine.