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 Shorewithout 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.