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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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John Carter gives familiar sci-fi material a spark of energy
Life on Mars
on
The film is a surprisingly good time.
The film is a surprisingly good time.

John Carter could tip the scales over to silly, but it somehow manages to stay just on the right side of fun. Adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel A Princess of Mars, director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) and his co-screenwriters (including novelist Michael Chabon) introduce us to Capt. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate Civil War veteran whose death in 1881 brings his nephew Ned (erstwhile Spy Kid Daryl Sabara) to New York for a reading of his will.

In Carter's journals, Ned learns the story of how a search for treasure in the Arizona Territory led Carter to a mysterious cave, and an amulet that transported him to a planet the locals call Barsoom, or what we know as Mars. There he found a planet in the midst of centuries-long war - though the end may be near, as the shadowy Matai Shang (Mark Strong) has given a powerful weapon to his puppet, the warlord Sab Than (Dominic West).

There's more to the Martian political machinations, but it's hard to care about any of it. John Carter often feels desperately over-plotted, from Carter's unspoken history of tragedy and heartbreak, to the confounding manipulations of Matai Shang and his fellow Therns, to the connection between the chief of the green Thark race (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and a perpetually punished young female (Samantha Morton). It's a lot for young leads Kitsch and Lynn Collins (as beautiful princess Dejah) to carry, as fetching as they may look in various revealing costumes.

Yet every time John Carter starts to buckle under the strain of limited actors or distracting exposition, it finds somewhere fun to go. A terrific early sequence sees Carter captured by a group of U.S. soldiers, and a simple monologue by their leader (Bryan Cranston) is repeatedly interrupted by Carter's escape attempts. Once on Mars, Carter finds himself pinwheeling madly through his attempts at walking as he tries to adjust to the effect of lower gravity. Carter finds an improbable - and extremely loyal - ally in the lightning-fast, six-legged, endearingly dog-like Woola. And a climactic arena battle between Carter and a gigantic "white ape" reaches a wonderfully over-the-top conclusion.

That arena battle bears more than a faint resemblance to the one in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, and other bits and pieces throughout the adventure feel similarly familiar. It's easy to imagine some viewers offering a "been there, seen that" shrug, or finding Kitsch too lightweight a hero.

The trick, then, is the energy and charm a filmmaker brings to a story. While the conclusion sets up the prospect of sequels, I'm not sure I need to see another John Carter movie - but I had a surprisingly good time with this one.

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