Intoxicatingly adventurous, marvelously grand, John Carter is the kind of movie modern filmmakers think they are making but that so often leave audiences feeling disappointed. John Carter does not disappoint.
Watching John Carter, I experienced a lot of the same emotions I had when I was 11 years old, watching another movie unspool for the first time, another story about a reluctant hero on a desert-like planet who finds himself aiding a beautiful princess during a civil war in which a moving city with a death ray threatens to lay waste to an entire civilization.
John Carter does not invite comparisons to Star Wars -- it insists on them, because its source material, the "Barsoom" books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, inspired so much of that other outer-space saga. Before I saw John Carter, I had little interest in science-fiction/adventure novels written 100 years ago; now, I can't wait to devour them, to learn which elements made it to screen and which didn't, to find out what happens to John Carter once this particular story ends, because John Carter left me wanting much, much more. Even at more than two hours, it mostly flies by -- sometimes a little too hurriedly, its primary flaw -- and almost every moment enchanted me.
The ones that didn't are during the introduction and the climax, both of which feel like they are trying to cram too much action and story into too little time. The opening scenes, particularly, are filled with dialogue that will make much more sense the next time I see the movie but mostly exist to set up the unbelievable adventure of a Civil War veteran named John Carter.
He's a natural, irrepressible fighter with an instinct to act first and ask questions ... well, preferably never. Carter (played with a fun sense of movie-hero bravado by Taylor Kitsch) is a soldier of fortune during a war that was mostly about passion and deep-seated beliefs. Carter wouldn't have cared if he was wearing blue or gray, as long as he got to carry his weapon and fight someone. But the war is over, it has taken a toll on Carter, and he finds himself prospecting for gold in the Arizona desert, being chased by everyone who has it in for him -- in this case, both the Army and the Indians. He finds a cave to hide in, but he's not alone, there's a strange-looking man with an even stranger-looking object in his hand, and as quick as you can say "Barsoom," John Carter finds himself on Mars.
In the novel, Carter has wondered about the beautiful red star in the sky. In the movie, he has no idea where he is or how he got there, he has to figure it all out. All he knows for sure is that wherever he is, he has amazing physical abilities.
In short order, Carter discovers that this strange place he's in is experiencing its own deadly civil war, and he's asked to fight for the side of ... well, how would he know if it's right or not? But he does like to fight. Since one side has a beautiful, scantily clad princess (the stunning Lynn Collins) who's doing the asking, he'll choose that side. In the middle of it all are the native people of Mars, which in their language is called Barsoom, and if Carter has sympathies for anyone, it's probably them -- all they want is to live without being bothered by the endless warring of the human-types.
Carter wants to figure out a way to go home more than anything else, and the princess, Dejah Thoris, tells him she thinks she can help him. So, we've got a war movie, we've got a road movie, we've got a fish-out-of-water movie and, thanks to words like "Barsoom," "jeddak," "Thark" and "Thern," we've got a hardcore science-fiction movie -- plus, of course, a classic action-adventure.
John Carter is all those things, but more than any of them, it's a "movie movie," an unabashedly entertaining story that pulls us in and teaches us what we need to know along the way. Some audiences may have a problem with this -- director Andrew Stanton and screenwriters who include the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon assume the audience is smart enough to figure certain things out for themselves. This is a movie that easily could have stumbled by endless scenes of two people telling each other things they clearly already know as exposition for the audience.
John Carter doesn't have time for extraneous things like exposition. Much like The Wizard of Oz, it tells us just enough and lets us discover as we go. It's one of the movie's most admirable qualities. For much of its running time, you may find yourself a little lost -- but by the end, it's all quite clear. (At one point, I was getting frustrated wondering why a certain mysterious character doesn't just end things right there, because that sure would be easier -- then the movie takes a moment to give him a fantastic scene in which he explains exactly why he does what he does.)
Andrew Stanton directed John Carter, and while it's reasonable to wonder if a director of animation has what it takes to make a big-budget, high-profile live-action film, well, remember this: Most of John Carter actually is animated, with a few live-action actors thrown in for effect.
Those actors acquit themselves very well. If Taylor Kitsch is just the tiniest bit bland, remember the character is a bit of a cypher even to those who know him best. Collins is both intelligent and great to look at, with the kind of "movie British" accent that plays up her royalty. The voice actors, particularly Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church as the tall, green Tharks, help create clear personalities among a race that, in the books, is described as being physically homogeneous.
John Carter has an extraordinary look. It will be compared to the Star Wars prequels, I'm sure -- but John Carter does something those films didn't do: It takes the time to show us the environment, to get us familiar with this odd world, so meticulously designed and shot.
And then, at its core, is that princess -- and John Carter himself. What I loved most, really, about John Carter was the way they fall in love, what a compelling, ingratiating romance this is.
The rushed ending and confusingly edited "final battle" is the movie's biggest liability. There were more than a few moments in which I didn't quite understand who was doing what, or why, when I lost sense of the story and why this battle was important. (I imagine the distracting 3-D conversion not only doesn't add anything here but actually detracts, since it's hard enough to make out everything in an action scene with such grand scope; my suggestion is to skip the 3-D option.)
John Carter ends with an implied promise that the character will return to the screen soon. There are 11 books. If they're all as expansive and simply entertaining as this one, I'll gladly sit through another 24 hours or so of John Carter. It's a wonderful film, made for the cynic inside us all, the one who sits at a movie screen as the light goes down and says silently, "Dazzle me."
Filled with strange creatures, ancient mysteries, intense action and soaring wonder, John Carter fulfills that request: It dazzles and delights, and if you give it half a chance, you'll walk out with a giddy smile, feeling like a kid again, a kid who's just been shown what magic the movies can make.
Viewed at Regal L.A. Live -- Feb. 22, 2012