At almost no time during “John Carter” will you understand what in the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs is going on.
There is talk of a “predator city” and a “ninth ray” but precisely what they are remains somewhat mysterious. Most of the action takes place on a planet called Barsoom (we call it Mars) inhabited by a race called the Tharks, savage, primitive, towering beings with four arms and horns who go in for gladitorial sports, and a group of slightly better dressed, tattooed humans who call themselves “red” but are in fact more orange-y, sort of like the cast of “Jersey Shore” without the sexually transmitted diseases.
There is time travel and space travel and a big friendly lizard that acts like a dog — and apparently a place to buy hair extensions. And here’s the thing: Despite all this, “John Carter” manages to be a ridiculous amount of fun, even if you are immune to the charms of Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) running around in what amounts to a stylish loincloth.
Based on “A Princess of Mars” by Burroughs — who wrote a series about John Carter but is best known as the creator of Tarzan — the film is directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton, who directed “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” and co-wrote both, as well as logging writing credits on all three “Toy Story” movies. You know who else co-wrote “John Carter”? Michael Chabon.
Yes. That Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” whose love of comic books is legendary. This intriguing fact does not mean you won’t hear stilted lines like “In the time of oceans, they walked among us,” and “My people ... I’ve failed them all.” This is comic book material through and through, nothing showy or high-brow, and it’s written by people well-versed in its tropes and language.
As the film opens, cavalryman and Civil War veteran John Carter (Kitsch) sends a telegram summoning his college student nephew — named Edgar Rice Burroughs — to meet him at his Virginia estate. When the kid gets there, he learns his uncle has died and has left him the estate and all his peculiar maps and papers, in particular a journal that comes with instructions to read it right away. Young Edgar settles down with the diary and propels us into the story of Carter’s tragic past, his disdain for fighting other people’s fights, his obsession with a hidden cave of gold and how he ended up on Barsoom, leading the battle for the planet’s future and winning the heart of a princess (Lynn Collins) who can happily hold her own in a sword fight.
Stanton treats the material with just the right light touch; even though the characters take what’s happening seriously, the mood of film never falls prey to the lofty self-importance that overwhelmed “Avatar.” John Carter has no interest in preaching to you, though there’s some nominal talk about how man is a warlike being bent on destruction, which is demonstrated by the evil Sab Than (Dominic West), who wants the princess’ hand in marriage but may have more nefarious plans for her.
“John Carter” is one of those movies in which nobody ever calls their offspring something simple like Ken or Dave. The Martian princess is Dejah Thoris. There’s also this guy Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who “serves the goddess,” as he says, and is one of a time-traveling, shape-shifting band of elders that act as air traffic controllers for destruction. I’d tell you some of the Tharks’ names, but I’m getting a headache just thinking about it.
So yes, “John Carter” can be exhausting in its complexities, and yes, it’s easy to mock. But it’s light years more fun than George Lucas’ clunky “Star Wars” prequels, and it wins you over despite any reservations you come into the theater with. When you’re dumping the 3-D glasses into the recycling bin, you have to admit you enjoyed it your time on Barsoom. There may be shame, but there will much less regret than you imagine.