Not surprisingly, it's a big, messy, blood-pumping*, world-sprawling spectacle in the spirit of its source, Edgar Rice Burroughs's muscular John Carter of Mars novels (the first of which I've read, and preferred significantly to Burroughs's Tarzan). Perhaps surprisingly, this film has more of a sense of humor than at least the first novel, A Princess of Mars, had, but the humor never gets in the way of an almost naive sincerity to the whole sword-waving business.
John Carter is the first live-action film directed by Andrew Stanton, who gave us several lovely surprises in his movies Finding Nemo** and Wall-E and gives us a larger, weirder canvas here. Battles are waged in airships shaped like mutated dragonflies. One of the big threats in the story is a walking city that stalks, and eats up, the Martian landscape. While most of the weapons are vaguely steampunk 19th-century-ish contraptions, one weapon grows around the arm of its user like a sentient blue spiderweb. An alien pet looks like an eight-foot-long cross between a pug and a tadpole (which also, by the way, runs at about 200 miles an hour).
Yes, it's a weird film. Also a little slow and confusing to start (We're on Mars! Then Earth! Then earlier on another part of Earth! Then Mars again!), but that set-up pays off in a finale that I was not expecting, and which impressed me. John Carter takes its time, and makes sometimes ambling, sometimes racing use of its 2 hour-20-minute length. Stanton and his co-screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon took a fair amount*** from A Princess of Mars to make this story, cherry-picking elements from the other books like the god-like (or Satan-like, depending on one reading of the film) Therns. It's big and complicated, and you do kind of have to just accept the plot and go on. I'll sum it up this way: There's war on Mars, and after he's thrown into the thick of it, John Carter (who fought for the Confederate States of America) has to decide whether he's up for fighting another war.
And war it is: the indeed-PG-13-level battles got a lot of cringing out of me. When characters and airships get hit, they really get hit. It was enough to make me grunt "ungh" several times.
Dejah Thoris, a princess and scientist (and the reason for the original novel's title), is a hell of a mover-and-shaker, and is played by Lynn Collins as someone prepared to make tough decisions and wanting all of those around her to step up to those tough decisions also. She's ready to fight for her people, then she does indeed fight for her people. She's the standout human-ish performance...
...but the greatest standout is Willem Dafoe as the ridiculously tall, four-armed and green Thark warrior named Tars Tarkas. (And Tars Tarkas was really played on set: Dafoe and the other Thark actors walked around on stilts so they'd be in the thick of the action, not simply painted in by computer later, though obviously the performances are computer-augmented like whoa.) Tharks seem born to sneer, but they're emotionally deeper than that, and Dafoe gives a complicated, sometimes touching performance as a leader who's conflicted in a surprising way.
I'm not yet convinced Taylor Kitsch as John Carter is more than adequate for much of the first half, where he boggles and seethes at the strange creatures and places he's thrown at, tries to adapt to the lower gravity (which is good for more comedy), and is mainly motivated by "get me the hell back to Earth!" He's initially dragged kicking and screaming into the wars and politics of this other world, and Kitsch's performance is of the not-quite-subtle school; it's not bad, but it's also not great. Tough role; I'm not sure who could have sold it better.
But the film's sincerity is strongest in one particular montage, with Carter's memories from his personal aftermath of the Civil War inter-cut with his most savage attack on his Martian foes. Without giving anything away, it's brutal and wrenching. This is where Kitsch best connects as John Carter; without it, the ending would not work nearly as well.
Plus there's sex appeal, manageable (I think) for the younger set so that they won't be bothered or confused, but strongly there for those of us old enough to appreciate it.
John Carter is impressively ridiculous, in a way that gets my strong approval. I'm going to see if I can swing seeing it again.
* And by the way, all the blood that's spilled is blue, which might make this easier for the squeamish to take.
** I love that Finding Nemo succeeded at having a compelling story with no villains. Think about it. Every character is understandable and likable to an extent (except maybe the kid with braces). I once mentioned this to my friend Tarah, and she said "You're right! The sharks are trying so hard to be good!"
*** There's one particular part of the first novel's ending that's not used in this film, but which (my guess) almost certainly would be used if Disney ever makes more John Carter movies.