"You're ugly, but you're beautiful."
Which is not to say that John Carter is a great movie. It's a good movie, and many people will admire the great things about it and others will denigrate the poor things about it all with complete justification. The movie's weaknesses are, in many respects, the weaknesses of ERB, with a few more tacked on. The movie's strengths are ERB's strengths, where new-fangled CGI technology can bring to the screen what florid language could only describe a century ago.
It's a worthy effort, and a fitting tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's not the brilliant homage to George Melies of Hugo nor the nifty movie magic of the 30s serials that the Indiana Jones movies brought to the big screen. But the parts that work are really good, and if you go in with low expectations you'll have a grand ol' time.
John Carter starts off the way the novel does: On Earth. Before the marketing category of "science fiction" was developed in the late 1920s, all sf slipped into the adventure category. There was only one universe -- ours -- and Aristotle's fiction constraints still held. Huck Finn was in the same universe as Uncle Tom's Cabin; The Time Machine was in the same universe as Pride and Prejudice. Books that take place in another time or locale spent an enormous amount of of the book simply getting there and back so you can read their story.
In John Carter, the literary device of Carter's son telling the story is replaced by his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Okay, sure, fine. Faithful to ERB, and helps set up some of the motivations when he gets to Mars, but gets in the way.
Aside I: I'm tired of people on the wrong side of the Civil War being the main character. They were the bad guys, and killed Americans. Not all of them were racist scum, but those that weren't were fellow travelers. It's time for the South to offer something in the way of reconciliation. I'll let this one slide since ERB's character is from Virginia. But still, it's annoying.
Once Carter gets to Mars, the fun begins. He has to figure out how to walk in the lower gravity and speak a foreign tongue. (We shall ignore, for the nonce, atmosphere, food or germs.) He meets Tars Tarkus and the tharks. The CGI is wonderful. The huge panoramas, bustling with tharks, need to be seen on the large screen. We popped for 3D and IMax, which were nice. But at minimum, see it on a large screen. TV, even a large one, won't have the same effect.
We meet Dejah Thoris. She was wearing too many clothes, but at least she (and most of the Barsoomian females) were strong characters and excellent fighters. Dejah Thoris has to marry her city's bitterest enemy to end centuries of war. Fortunately for the plot, the enemy has Dastardly Intentions and John Carter can rescue her.
The battle scenes are great. While some of the air battles are confusing, the swordplay and blue-blooded flesh-rending work spectacularly. What 2001: A Space Odyssey did for space travel and Star Wars did for space battles, John Carter will do for epic bronze age fighting on alien worlds.
Aside II: Anyone up for a remake of Starship Troopers now that you can do it right?
I won't go into the various plot machinations. Either you know exactly what's going to happen (in a general sort of way) or you'll let the action sweep over you. John Carter isn't "science fiction" or even "sci-fi". It's a pulp novel turned into a movie. If you don't get that, you might as well not bother going.
The movie gets a lot of things right aside from the CGI: The tharks are sufficiently alien (and yet human). The flying ships are believable (sort of). Even the funny animal works. Taylor Kitsch, in the title role, is a great fighter and a so-so lover. Lynn Collins, as Dejah Thoris, is worthy of rescue but doesn't quite pull off being a warrior princess; compare Natalie Portman as Padme. All the Tharks, projected into their CGI personas ala Avatar, are great.
The movie misses on several counts. It's too long. The Earth sequences could have been pared. After about the third iteration of pot boiler action, you have to rely on the special effects. It's not really a clever movie, in the way Lucas or Spielberg accomplish.
Aside III: There is nothing after the credits. The credits themselves are long and (for some of us) interesting, but there isn't any Hidden Action afterward.
So: Recommended. See it, and see it on the biggest screen you can find, before it goes off into limbo. If you've read the books, you'll appreciate how well they have been brought to life. If you haven't, you'll be swept up in the world.