It takes a while to get going and is about half an hour too long, but “John Carter” has some spectacular visuals and well-staged action scenes. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan novels, also wrote the John Carter: Adventures on Mars series, about a Confederate Army veteran transported to Mars, who becomes involved in battles between two humanoid warring factions (one of which has, natch, a beautiful princess who does not want to marry the leader of the opposing side as her father is urging). There are also some warlike but intelligent tall, green, egg-laying creatures with an extra pair of arms, and some mysterious robed messenger types with access to super-weapons.
Handsome but bland Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter. In an overlong prologue, we see him as an angry loner seeking a legendary gold stash and refusing to join the U.S. Cavalry (headed by “Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston). He finally discovers the cave with the gold, which is a storage facility used by what we would call a Martian, and a fight ends with his being transported to Mars, or, as the inhabitants call it, Barsoom. He is discovered by some of the four-armed green Martians, including their leader Tars (voice of Willem Dafoe), who is fascinated by Carter’s ability to leap huge distances and heights, thanks to the Barsoomian gravity. He is something between a pet and a prisoner, but things improve when they give him a drink that makes it possible for them to understand each other’s languages.
In the meantime, the robed messengers have delivered their super-weapon to Sab Than (“The Wire’s” Dominic West), the leader of the Zodanga, enemies of Helium, which is led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), father of Princes Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who are now in an increasingly precarious position. It gets overly complicated for a while but then it picks up when John Carter gets involved with Dejah and has to fight some enormous monsters gladiator-style and there are some very cool flying ships.
The frame story adds unnecessary clutter to an already-muddled plot and Collins, an extraordinarily gifted and classically trained actress, is under-used in a decidedly un-classical role. There has been some surprising speculation about Christian themes in the storyline, but I believe it is just the typical finding-the-hero-within-after-disillusionment, down to the big reveal about returning home to discover tragedy that we see in everything from “The Searchers” to “Star Wars: A New Hope.” The most important reason it does not work well as a Christ story is that the main character is not very compelling and the narrative not very resonant.
Parents should know that this film includes a lot of peril and sci-fi/fantasy violence, guns and other weapons, hand-to-hand combat, some disturbing images, and scary monsters along with some language.
Family discussion: What do we learn about John Carter from his reaction to the U.S. Cavalry? Why does Matai Shang give the weapon to Sab Than? Why was Sola so important to Tars?
If you like this, try: the “Star Wars” films and the book by Edgar Rice Burroughs