As I exited the theater after seeing John Carter, I was astonished to find it was a chill winter's day. My surprise was rooted in my just having seen the first tent-pole movie of the season, one more likely to be released in the summer season, with epic plotlines and thrilling special effects. John Carter generally fulfills every expectation of that type of movie, hewing close to its roots by not expecting its audience to think too much about what's happening onscreen, but sit back and let the story and effects roll over them.
The bones of the plot are relatively straightforward, John Carter finds himself accidentally transported to the planet Mars, called Barsoom by its natives. Despite being adopted by the people he finds and discovering a world war threatening the very survival of the planet, as well as an even more vast conspiracy, all Carter wants to do is return home. He has had his fill of war, surviving the Civil War and, we discover through flashbacks, losing his wife and daughter. His adventures carry him from the savage aboriginal Tharks, four-armed, tusked green giants to the civilized citizens of Helium and Zodanga. And eventually, his losses and the pain they bring him are scrubbed away by the people and events in his sojourn, such that by the end of the movie he is made whole.
To my delight, one of the strongest parts of the film is the casting of Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. Dejah Thoris in her hands is smart and thoughtful, capable of wielding a sword as well as scientific instruments. The commercials for the movie don't give her enough credit; she is astonishingly attractive with a faint exotic appeal, and not nearly as young as the commercials make her appear. She is a high point of the film, while her romantic opposite, Taylor Kitsch as John Carter just fails abysmally. The script calls for Carter to be conflicted in nearly all of his actions he finally decides to go all in for the good side. Unfortunately, it's the flashbacks that mostly reveal Carter's conflict rather than any acting on Kitsch's part. The other telling weakness in Kitsch's portrayal is a nearly complete lack of charisma; the Barsoomians that he deals with are overawed with his ability to jump and his strength, which is just as well since his personality is that of a sponge. Of course, this leads to the chemistry between Collins and Kitsch to also be somewhat lacking—it's not really clear what Dejah Thoris sees in Carter beyond a potential savior to her wartorn planet. This is, usually, not enough to spark a romance.
The supporting characters are generally very strong. The skill of Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton come through the CGI to make Tars Tarkas and Sola both approachable and likable. Ciaran Hinds is wonderful as the Mors Kajak, leader of the city-state of Helium, showing conflict when he is constantly asked to decide between saving his daughter Dejah Thoris and his city. Mark Strong is his capably menacing self as Matai Shang, and Dominic West plays his usual manic character, teetering on the edge of self-destruction in pursuit of grandiose goals.
I fear that the movie may be overly complex for the younger demographic it appears to be aiming for at times. The plot swings all over the spectrum, including a monumental framing device (the bulk of the movie really is a story within a story). The characters never get from one place on Barsoom, or in the plot, to another in a straight-line fashion. Well-handled, such complexity adds depth to the story, but in John Carter, it feels more like a reason to add special effects. Such transparent complexity is indicative of perhaps an overriding flaw, an inability to balance between adolescent and adult storytelling that characterize the most successful franchise movies. A true indicator of success at finding a balance between the two poles usually lies in the humor the movie uses, but John Carter seems to think that children are generally stupid and thus its humor becomes wearying to adults. For instance, due to translation difficulties, the Tharks with whom Carter originally finds himself think his name is Virginia and regularly call him that. It's worth a chuckle when it first happens, to see this manly man and true warrior being referred to by a name that he and the audience think of as extremely feminine. But the mistake continues for some time, and Carter is increasingly put upon by it, and the joke doesn't end until well after it is no longer funny to the viewer. Similarly, Carter adopts a Barsoomian animal (which is called a calot in the books but the movie actually never specifies) named Woola, the most salient attributes of which are ridiculous speed and an extremely large blue tongue. Woola fulfills the role of animal sidekick through the course of the movie, friend and companion, slobbering over Carter at awkward moments and evoking sympathy from the audience when he is unwillingly left behind. And of course, at some point, you know he is going to save Carter's life.
Such moments also make it feel that John Carter falls back on the clichés of the epic blockbuster franchise-making movie. Purists will point out that, in fact, the books on which John Carter is based are some of the originators of the tropes that have eventually become clichés in modern storytelling. Unfortunately, this means nothing to an audience that doesn't know the books—the audience that Disney is most likely shooting for. To be honest, most of these tentpole movies don't really break any new ground in their storytelling either, nor do most audiences going to them expect to brilliant storytelling, but John Carter has been marketed as something different.
All of this doesn't take away from the fact that the movie is a lot of fun and pretty to look at. The effects are indeed pretty interesting, and I was struck by the ruined city that the Tharks take as their home. The movie works better with vistas than detail—the overhead shots of the Thark arena are also breathtaking, as are the river Iss. The more modern cities of Helium and Zodanga are generically futuristic, austere in one case and steampunk in the other, so more lovely to see from a distance than up close. The fliers are fascinating as well, gorgeous machines operating on solar power with wings made of mirrors. And the CGI is quite good, so good that you don't really notice that it is CGI, which should always be the goal. The bestiary is cool to look at as are the Tharks (and the few shots we get of one of their rival tribes).
Of course John Carter ends up in the perfect place for sequels, as can also be expected of these tentpole movies. I wouldn't be offended by more Barsoom movies, but I would not expect long theater life for any of them so long as they stick to this formula. True to its roots, John Carter is fun and pleasant while it is in front of you but easy to forget once you've stopped viewing it. Worth viewing, especially on the big screen but not necessarily in 3D (I didn't see it in 3D and could see where the 3D effect might be used but nothing worth paying the extra money for).