The tragedy of mod­ern moviego­ing at the mul­ti­plex level is that a movie lives and dies by the qual­ity of its mar­ket­ing.  If a stu­dio doesn’t know how to pack­age its own cre­ation then no one can be both­ered to real­ize what it is, much less give it a fair chance.  Today’s movie­go­ers are too bedaz­zled with options at the­aters and at home to inves­ti­gate an option that isn’t tied up in a neat bow and the enter­tain­ment press is all too happy to bury a stu­dio flick if it doesn’t have a block­buster open­ing weekend.

Thus, it is fright­en­ingly easy for a poten­tial hit to fall through the cracks if the stu­dio fum­bles the mar­ket­ing ball… and it’s unlikely that any big-budget film will be mar­keted worse this year than John Carter.  This $200 mil­lion adap­ta­tion of a clas­sic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel was buried by a stu­pidly abbre­vi­ated title that omit­ted the two cru­cial words “Of Mars” from its end­ing, thus leav­ing the aver­age movie­goer think­ing the film was some sort of his­tor­i­cal biog­ra­phy.  Combine that with a vague, utterly ho-hum ad cam­paign and you have a for­mula for pre-determined box office disaster.

This is tragic because John Carter is the rare popcorn-movie block­buster that brings an old-fashioned, utterly heart­felt spirit of adven­ture to its pur­suit of spec­ta­cle.  As cre­ated by Burroughs, Carter is the arche­typal “acci­den­tal vis­i­tor to another planet,” the kind of char­ac­ter that later icons like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers took their cues from.  On earth, Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an ex-soldier of the Civil War era, a man with a bro­ken life who wants an escape.  While dodg­ing foes — Indians and the mil­i­tary — he hap­pens into a cave and has a run-in with some oth­er­worldly tech­nol­ogy that zaps him elsewhere.

As Carter soon dis­cov­ers, that else­where is the planet Mars (known to locals as Barsoom). In short order, he dis­cov­ers that the planet’s grav­ity gives him some spe­cial abil­i­ties that he wouldn’t have on Earth and that he is sur­rounded by a num­ber of strange races fight­ing for the des­tiny of Mars.  He finds an ally and poten­tial love inter­est in Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess who is on the run from prob­lems of her own.  As he attempts to find a way home, he comes to real­ize that he might have found the escape he was look­ing for — and that it will require him to fight once more to secure its future.

However, don’t let that some­what cere­bral syn­op­sis fool you — John Carter is designed like the cliff-hanger seri­als of yes­ter­year, deliv­er­ing slam-bang action of the fan­tas­tic vari­ety in every reel that dove­tail effec­tively with a series of nifty plot twists that keep advanc­ing the plot in fresh new direc­tions.  It’s refresh­ing to see a mod­ern event movie where the sto­ry­telling and an exotic, mul­ti­fac­eted set­ting is as impor­tant as the spec­ta­cle.

Another dis­tin­guish­ing qual­ity of John Carter at the script level is that it has a sense of humor but never suc­cumbs to cyn­i­cal mod­ern irony or awk­wardly insert­ing comic relief to appease mar­ket­ing con­cerns.  The bits of humor here are organic, flow­ing from the sit­u­a­tions in a way that helps endear Carter and the other char­ac­ters to the audi­ence rather than pok­ing fun at them.  The result has a wink in its eye but never cops out on the sense of won­der and excite­ment it has for the story it tells.

Director Andrew Stanton, pre­vi­ously a direc­tor and writer on sev­eral Pixar movies, brings the nec­es­sary sense of grandios­ity to this two-planet nar­ra­tive, effec­tively blend­ing unearthly desert locales with well-crafted CGI to give the film a look that is clas­si­cal and futur­is­tic all at once.  The crea­ture designs are con­vinc­ing when blended in with the flesh and blood actors — par­tic­u­larly the tall, multi-armed and green Thark race — and the Martian tech­nol­ogy has a like­ably regal-by-way-of-medieval look, par­tic­u­larly the fly­ing war-ships that look like they flew in from the cover of the Yes album, Fragile.

That said, Stanton never allows the film’s sense of scope to obscure the char­ac­ters that drive it for­ward.  He makes sure the action has mean­ing by infus­ing the plot turns and fight scenes with mean­ing via the char­ac­ters’ strug­gles with each other, not to men­tion the inner strug­gles that com­pli­cate their choices.  Indeed, the most sat­is­fy­ing bit of action in the film is a scene where Carter takes on a ver­i­ta­ble army of attack­ers to pro­tect Dejah as flash­backs reveal the past tragedy that he was run­ning from on Earth.  The emo­tions of the past inform the action of the present and the result­ing scene is mov­ing in a way you rarely get from an action sequence.

Finally, strong per­for­mances ensure the fan­tas­ti­cal sto­ry­line doesn’t drift off into the either.  Kitsch has a fresh-faced charm that is free of action-hero pos­tur­ing as Carter and Collins is eas­ily the most kick-ass female hero­ine to roll down the mul­ti­plex pike in a long time.  There are also strong per­for­mances from Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton in voice char­ac­ter­i­za­tions as the CGI-infused Tharks: Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas is a charm­ingly brusque bar­bar­ian with a heart of gold while Morton does sub­tler work as a hum­ble Thark mis­fit who dis­cov­ers her des­tiny along­side Carter.  Elsewhere, there are wor­thy turns from Ciaran Hinds as a trou­bled Martian ruler, Dominic West as a schem­ing rival with eyes for Dejah and Mark Strong as a mys­te­ri­ous cos­mic char­ac­ter who isn’t as peace­ful as his demeanor suggests.

Simply put, John Carter deliv­ers every­thing you want from a popcorn-movie block­buster: excite­ment, romance and unearthly sights, all deliv­ered with thought­ful craft and a sur­pris­ing amount of heart.  It’s the kind of movie that you thought Hollywood for­got how to make, which makes its betrayal by bad mar­ket­ing all the more heart­break­ing.  Catch it if you can — it’s a rare occa­sion where you get a whole epic’s worth of adven­ture for the ticket price.

(A Word About John Carter And 3-D: if you can still see John Carter at the the­ater, don’t bother with the 3-D.  As with too many Hollywood event movies, this film was given the post-conversion 3-D treat­ment and you’ll essen­tially be pay­ing more money for some­thing the orig­i­nal image was never intended for anyways.)