Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is often spectacular, with stunning action and thrilling moments. It’s a film that captures the pulpy, swashbuckling sensibilities of Edgar Rice Burroughs while updating much of the whiz bang for an audience a century older than the original novels. In fact the film is so good, so close to great, that it’s incredibly frustrating when it can’t quite get there.
First, what works. Lynn Collins is magnificent as Martian princess Dejah Thoris. Rarely has a female character like this been seen in a boy-centric blockbuster; Dejah is a scientist as well as a princess, and a fierce warrior as well as a totally sexy bombshell. A whole generation will have their puberties kick started by Lynn Collins in this film. The pulp sensibilities of Burroughs included more than a little bit of fantasy sexuality (something George Lucas bleached out of too much of our post-Star Wars scifi and fantasy), and Collins is volcanic in her sexuality. But that doesn’t define the character, who feels fully realized and true. What I like best about Dejah Thoris is that her ass-kicking side doesn’t make her un-femme, and her toughness doesn’t make her any less humanly vulnerable. Imagine Princess Leia without Carrie Fisher’s boobs taped down or Sarah Connor without the masculinity and you begin to get the picture. Dejah Thoris is the best female character in science fiction/fantasy cinema since Ripley.
What’s more, Collins gets the tone of the film perfectly. She plays it just big enough, with a slightly theatrical Shakespearean broadness, to have fun while also taking it seriously. Her introduction has her speaking right into the camera, intoning a speech about saving the city of Helium from invaders, but she immediately breaks and looks away and we realize this isn’t some kind of David Lynch narration nonsense, it’s the princess practicing her words to herself. This epitomizes the tone of the film, a movie where the self-serious stuff is always undercut by warmth and humor.
It’s a Pixar tone, essentially, which makes sense as that’s from whence Stanton hails. You can see lots of Pixar stuff in this movie; there’s a scene early on where Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter is captured by Union soldier Bryan Cranston and he tries to escape as Cranston delivers exposition. Each attempt goes wrong, and is seamlessly edited together in a funny bit of of business that also gets across plot information.