The first live-action film by WALL-E director Andrew Stanton, John Carter is a film struggling to find a balance between its desire to deliver Star Wars-esque, family-friendly fantasy and a modern, 21st century spectacle. At its best, the film is a nimble, exciting sci-fi adventure that moves from set piece to set piece like its gravity defying hero; at worst, it's poorly paced and mired in overly complicated mythology that Stanton and his screenwriters ought to have streamlined.
On Mars (known as Barsoom to its residents), a war rages on, with the final battle boiling down to Sab Than (Dominic West) and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Thoris is the heir to the throne of Helium, the last unconquered city, and she's furious when she discovers that her father Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) has traded her hand in marriage to Than in exchange for letting the people of Helium live. But Than's plan is more devious; he's been given a deadly power called The Ninth Ray by the Therns, a group of ancient beings led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who can visually transform into anyone. On the day of the wedding, he and Shang plan to make a show of Thoris being killed, manipulating the people into standing behind Than, "victim" of a tragic loss.
The film expects you to keep up with this kind of onslaught of names and places and races, but fails to ease the audience in, throwing several of them at the viewer in the very first scene, opening with a major battle sequence in flying ships above a city on Mars. Without a proper, clear introduction to all of the characters, it's hard to even separate one side from the other, much less who's good and who's evil, and although it's ultimately easy enough to simply focus on the performers instead of the details and follow the story, there's gotta be a clearer way to convey all of this information to the audience. After the scene concludes, the film moves to New York City to introduce John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), which would've been a better starting point.
Having scrambled up to a cave in an attempt to escape military imprisonment, Carter's journey begins when he discovers a dying Thern and a teleportation device, which unexpectedly drop him on the red planet. There, he discovers his Earthling bones are lighter than the Martians, allowing him to leap around like a superhero. Initially rescued by an alien named Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe), he is called into action when Dejah Thoris' battle brings itself to Tarkas' village, and she learns of his abilities.
Aside from the awkwardly placed opening, the battle scenes in John Carter are generally a blast, with the visual effects making great use of Carter's special talent. Although computer graphics frequently take over for Kitsch, there seems to be a fair amount of wire work on the film's many practical sets, which has a unique look to it that sells the effect. Stanton also stages these sequences without the shaking camera and machine-gun editing that make so many modern action sequences nausea-inducing blurs; there's almost always great geography in terms of where characters are in a scene in relation to one another.
It also helps that we care about John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Given that the Edgar Rice Burroughs story that inspired the film was titled A Princess of Mars, it's not surprising that Thoris is the most compelling character in the film, played by Collins with a fire-eyed magnetism that gives the character strength through all of her weaknesses. All too often, characters like Thoris are clear-eyed and confident, offering up cheap gags about showing up the hero as a response to complaints about weak-willed women, but Thoris' moments of self-doubt give the role genuine personality. Stanton puts the moments that test the strength of her convictions on screen, so we can share in her triumph, and her big moments are that much more satisfying. She's matched well with Kitsch, who has that undefinable type of charisma that makes people into movie stars. The Carter character is not necessarily a great fit for the actor -- he's way too young to give off the impression of a veteran, and his character gets the worst lines in the movie -- but even during his selfish stages at the beginning of the film, Carter is an easy guy to like, giving the audience a rock to latch onto throughout the movie's bumpy exposition phase, and that's down to Kitsch.
Although there are some nagging issues with the villains (what it is that Matai Shang wants to accomplish is pretty vague, suggesting but not clearly identifying the Therns as planet-hopping resource hogs looking at Earth as their next target), Stanton sends the film out on a high note, finding the absolute perfect balance between resolution and the setup for a sequel. John Carter is not a great movie, but it's a rousing one, striking a decent balance between modern-day moviemaking and an old-fashioned spirit of adventure.
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