There comes a point in your movie-watching life where prediction comes easy. The guy will end up with the girl, the heroine will live to fight another day, and the gruff man from nowhere will turn out to have been cleverly hiding a soft spot underneath all that bravado this whole time. Rom-coms begin to feel like a speed dating exercise where every table is populated by ex-girlfriends. "Ah yes," you think, sidling up to the table, "I remember now, this will be unpleasant." Which is why epic fantasies provide such a vital mix, because you don't know the rules of the game, and the genre can replace narrative tropes with relative impunity. Placing a film almost entirely on Mars is a beautiful thing, because of the lack of back story, the unclear motivations, and the red (oh so red) surface. In this manner, John Carter has a decided advantage, we can't predict what we haven't seen before. Though it treads the trodden trail of The Neverending Story, Willow, and Labyrinth in terms of fantasy appeal there are also huge doses of science fiction thrown in. It's Serenity meets Prince of Persia, if only Prince of Persia wasn't terrible.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, and there are a few things to be aware of prior to seeing John Carter. Director Andrew Stanton helped to write this lil' epic, and let's pause for a moment to be really proud of him. He also wrote and directed Wall-E and Finding Nemo, those alone earn him a lifetime of free drinks in my beachfront cabana bar, no further achievements necessary. The film starts on Mars, with a seemingly random action sequence, before segueing to pre-1900s America, and then finally pivoting to the old west. The first 25 minutes, it must be mentioned, lack any semblance of momentum and clarity. But this is Stanton at his finest, laying the groundwork, luring you in with an essential gambler's dilemma. Things will get better, right? And when they do, won't you lift your hands up in exultation? They do, and you will.
When we finally reach the alien planet the character of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) starts to round into form. He's immediately attacked and taken hostage. He has no notion of where he is, or how to get back, he's as disconcerted and discombobulated as a fellow who looks like he belongs in an underwear ad can be. He knows not this Barsoom, or how to proceed. Technically he doesn't even know his new location is called "Barsoom" by the local populace, but that will come. An alien named Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) attempts to ascertain his value, poking and prodding, shackling and demanding he jump for him. Oh yes, John Carter is a really excellent jumper, due the variance in his bone density vis a vis Earth. From there on we'll be immersed in Barsoom's politics, replete with conspiracies and princesses.
Where John Carter continually gets it right is pacing, levity, and breadth of story. As an audience unfamiliar with Martian customs and life forms, each corner of the film is an opportunity for knowledge. Or in some cases, jokes. Or exposition, tying character's motivations together. Good guys can be contextually bad, and each species has its own goals and value system. It's an incredibly complex story, but framed through the intimacy of focused character-driven plot building. The length can be felt a bit, the 3-D is (as per normal) pointless, and I'm not at all confident that there's an internal logic in place. Still, none of that derails the endeavor, and in the moment you'll find yourself intrigued. You want to know more about this world, the lives and causes on it, and how it will all end. In those final moments of screen light, Martian and Earther will blend, and you'll find yourself wanting to go back, wanting to know more.