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Film Review: 'John Carter' a Timeless Take on Century-Old Mars Tale
An airship flies overhead in "John Carter," a new movie opening March 9, 2012.
Credit: © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

It's difficult to view "John Carter" simply as a movie. It's an adaptation of a 100-year-old Mars adventure series created by a revered American author. It's the first successful attempt to bring the property to movie screens after decades of trying.

It's also a movie that cost a reported $250 million, and has been the target of some less-than-flattering press before release. 

So what's left when you strip all of that away? Well, a movie, and a pretty entertaining one.

The film is adapted from "A Princess of Mars," a tale first serialized in 1912 and published in book form in 1917. It is the opening salvo of author Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" series. Disney's "John Carter" is the story of the title character — a troubled civil war veteran played by "Friday Night Lights" star Taylor Kitsch — being magically transported to Mars, which looks like the planet Geonosis from "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" plus a healthy dash of "300."

Mars is a world at war, and though reluctant at first, Carter eventually takes up arms due to a budding romance with an attractive female Martian named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who, luckily for him, happens to looks exactly like an attractive female human. [Gallery: Visions of Mars from 'John Carter']

That might all sound familiar, recalling science fiction staples from "Star Wars" to "Avatar," but "John Carter" is the prototype, pre-dating those stories by decades. While it's important to acknowledge how influential the original material is, that might not mean a whole lot to modern audiences if they feel like they've seen it before.

The filmmakers — headlined by Andrew Stanton, who directed and co-wrote the script —stay true to the story's roots, with no clumsy attempts at modernization. Given Stanton's past history directing timeless Pixar films "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E," it's not an unexpected choice, but still a welcome one.

Which is not to say the movie looks outdated in any way, especially with a quarter-billion put into the production budget. The CGI — seen most prominently with the Tharks, a Martin race that alternately helps and hinders Carter in his journey — is mostly seamless, and the 3D is smooth if not a necessity.

Kitsch similarly equips himself well in the lead role, giving a credible touch of vulnerability to a role that could easily have been reduced to over-the-top machismo. Willem Dafoe injects a much-need touch of humanity as Thark leader Tars Tarkas, and "Breaking Bad" actor Bryan Cranston is predictably great in a brief appearance.

But where "John Carter" stumbles is in exactly where observers suspected it might based on the trailers — it's a lot to take in; sometimes too much.

Much like John Carter himself, viewers are dropped into the ongoing territorial conflict on Mars — "Barsoom," to the natives — without much of an indication of who is on what side or what exactly they're fighting over. That has its uses in a narrative — making the audience feel the same alienation, so to speak, as the protagonist — but can be distracting in a popcorn flick.

It's also possibly indicative of "John Carter" being too devoted to the original text, as the simple plot of "stranger in a strange land" is obfuscated a bit by the framing device involving Carter's nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself (played by Daryl Sabara of the "Spy Kids" franchise). It's a metatextual twist straight from the novel, but jumbles things up a bit as the film ends and hurtles towards a presumptive sequel.

Still, "John Carter" remains an impressive piece of filmmaking, not only as a well-constructed movie, but also as proof of the type of alchemy that is always hoped for with this type of adaptation, but never guaranteed: That a story from 1912 still works in 2012, and for the exact same reasons.

"John Carter" hits theaters today: March 9, 2012

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