Taylor Kitsch tries to escape the creatures on Mars in John Carter. <em>*MCT photo</em>
Taylor Kitsch tries to escape the creatures on Mars in John Carter. *MCT photo

Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Dominic West
Director: Andrew Stanton
Rated: PG-13
Showing: Neptune Cinema week of Friday, March 23. For more information call 292-7296.
Tickets: Buy tickets online
Runtime: 132 minutes

John Carter is a bloated sci-fi epic made watchable by swell effects, passable performances and those little dashes of humor that reassure us that 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 in the years just after America's Civil War.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the John Carter of Mars stories, appears as a character here, a young would-be writer (Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids) reading the journal of his late uncle (Taylor Kitsch), a swarthy, two-fisted Civil War vet searching for gold out West who stumbled instead into another Civil War - this one a thousand years old and millions of miles away. This one's taking place on Mars, which is where John Carter wakes up and asks, "Where the hell am I?"

He's landed in the end game of the Martian Civil War, when two cities are about to have their final battle. 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 the 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 intervenes.

Kitsch brings a robust manliness to the part of Carter, whom we meet during his brawling / prospecting / Indian-fighting days in the Old West. He's also got a light touch, which he'll need in the midst of all this - um - kitsch.

The movie has the requisite sword fights and land and sea (air) battles, with the obligatory "Let them to fight in the arena" moment.

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." Burroughs more than gets his due as a writer who envisioned a parallel world in this cinematic blend of hi-tech and retro-costuming, a world with an endless civil war, racism and religious mumbo jumbo.

It's a state-of-the-digital art 3D film with 1930s Flash Gordon story elements. It's a popcorn movie, not to be taken any more seriously than Clash of the Titans and its ilk. But even by those standards, John Carter is a bit of a slog.

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.