"John Carter" **
RATED PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action)
DIRECTOR: Andrew Stanton
CAST: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong and Dominic West"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. It'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 -- Helium and the mobile city of Zodanga, which grinds from place to place on a gigantic crawler -- 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.