John Carter

PECS IN SPACE: John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) shows off his physique to Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) on Mars.

The obvious tactic is to compare the recent Star Wars movies to the new John Carter. Just as obvious is the observation that John Carter is the better movie by a few light years: It's rip-snorting stuff. John Carter is based on A Princess of Mars (1912), the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 11 blood and thunder novels about the planet we call Mars, known to its indigenous creatures as Barsoom.

The Martian Tharks are warriors with battered tusks, not overimpressed by strangers, even the Earthman they discover and capture. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, physically fit but a clunky actor) evinces great strength and the ability to leap tall pinnacles in a single bound, so the Tharks make Carter one of their own, as part of a group initiation. Later, while a guest of the Tharks, Carter rescues a princess in peril: the humanoid Dejah Thoris. Shakespearean actress Lynn Collins, who was Juliet under Peter Hall's direction, plays this Martian honey.

In Burroughs' text, and in Frank Frazetta's illustrations, Dejah was a perennial hostage sculpted from pure cheesecake. Here, she's not just a princess but also a professor, investigating the "Ninth Ray," a power source that may be able to renew a dying planet. Unfortunately, her work is being sabotaged, and Dejah is forced into a marriage with an air-pirate thug (Dominic West). And bald alien shapeshifters, led by a priestly Mark Strong, lurk, watch, wait and interfere.

John Carter is visually lucid, and the 3-D is satisfying, thanks to the vast desert spaces of the red planet. The warp of Burroughs' pulp lies so deep in science-fiction films already that it would be impossible to dig it out—expect the nation's movie-writing hacks to joke about "Dejah Vu." John Carter, though, is diverting in a way space operas usually aren't. The film benefits from Burroughs' idea of populating a planet with contending forces; here we enjoy all the plot-thickener that Avatar decided to do without.

The characters show us more than one side; the Tharks can be superstitious but are uniformly brave and shrewd. You don't get weary from looking at them, when the first sight of Jar Jar Binks was enough to give you permanent moviephobia. And, as in the best computer animation, you start to forget they're not real.

John Carter

PG-13; 132 min.

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