BEFORE WE DELVE into "John Carter," here's a behind-the-scenes story about the movie's marketing I would like to share with you.
"Carter," Disney's $250 million 3D sci-fi extravaganza, originally carried the title "John Carter From Mars."
"Mars" was deleted because folks at the studio were traumatized by the March 2010 failure of "Mars Needs Moms."
So traumatized they felt anything with the word "Mars" in the title was forever tainted.
You can see how much worse this could have been. The Walt Disney Co. could have developed an aversion to the word "Moms," which might have forced the cancellation of Mother's Day.
At any rate, the $250 million movie lurches forward as plain old "John Carter," a title that carries the faint odor of labyrinthian corporate litigation, like "Michael Clayton," or "Erin Brockovich."
No such luck.
It is indeed set on "Mars," and there are indeed green men, although they are not little. They are large, elongated and have four arms apiece.
I think one of them wrote the script. In one hand he had a bottle of Jim Beam, which he drank while the other three hands typed on three keyboards. Then another green man with four green hands grabbed pages at random and stapled them together and voilà - "John Carter From . . . "
From . . .
I think the phrase Disney is looking for here is "Star Wars," the sort of visually spectacular, effects-heavy, space-adventure franchise this one clearly aspires to be.
In this case, though, the galaxy is not far way (it is our own), and it's not so long ago. Taylor Kitsch is title John, a Civil War vet who stumbles into a cave in Arizona that contains a portal (don't hold me to this) to Mars, where he ends up in the middle of another civil war, this one among three Martian tribes. Two humanoid, one green.
Carter becomes crucial to the conflict because of his amazing athletic ability. On Mars, where gravity is less onerous, he is capable of stupendous leaps and feats of strength.
His strength comes and goes, like our ability to follow the story. One minute Carter is the strongest guy on the planet, the next he's getting his ass kicked, and for this there is neither rhyme nor reason.
It's best not to get hung up on the Byzantine details, and use casting shorthand to get the general drift of things. For instance, any time you see Dominic West and Mark Strong on the same faction, you know it's evil.
Then there is actress Lynn Collins, a foxy, up-for-grabs Martian princess who's a sort of soft-core upgrade of Leia, without the cauliflower hair, and she doesn't need Jabba the Hutt to get her into a space bikini.
"Carter" is a hopeless mess, and yet the movie (which is technically wonderful in IMAX 3D) feels less infuriating than some other recent money-burning extravaganzas.
Its incoherence isn't as off-putting as a "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel, and its massive CGI component does have the sterile quality of a Lucas "Star Wars" reboot.
"Carter" is so good-natured, and so goofy, that it's hard to completely dislike.
But impossible, I think, to understand.