Friday, March 9, 2012

'John Carter' review: Artistry makes up for flaws in sci-fi spectacle

For the better part of a century, filmmakers have been trying to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs' influential "Barsoom" stories for the big screen. And for the better part of a century, those efforts have failed.
0309 taylor kitsch in john carter 2.JPGIn 'John Carter,' based on the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Barsoom' books, Taylor Kitsch, right, finds himself in another world entirely.
In the meantime, filmmaker after filmmaker has drawn inspiration from Burroughs' sci-fi tales, about a Civil War veteran mysteriously transported to a populated, war-torn Mars, where he is transformed into a sort of pre-"Superman" Superman thanks to the gravitational differences between Earth and the red planet.
George Lucas drew from Burroughs' stories for "Star Wars." James Cameron drew from them for "Avatar." And, yes, since I brought it up, "Superman" co-creator Jerry Siegel was inspired by Burroughs' work as well.
So it's a triumph in and of itself that director Andrew Stanton finally has managed to get "John Carter" -- based on "A Princess of Mars," the first book in the "Barsoom" series -- committed to celluloid. That it stands as a technical marvel and an eyeball-tickling spectacle -- seamlessly blending beautiful computer animation with live-action performances -- will only further satisfy those who grew up drinking in the depth of Burroughs' wildly imaginative tales.
But while filmmakers such as Cameron and Lucas were drawing inspiration from the "Barsoom" books and paying it tribute in their own films, they also -- unfortunately and ironically -- were doing the original stories a disservice. While these stories might have been the innovative ones, and far-reaching sci-fi progenitors, they also have been robbed of much of their novelty.
For all of the love and money lavished upon "John Carter" by Stanton -- a two-time Oscar-winning Pixar director (for "Finding Nemo" and "Wall*E") and first-rate storyteller, on loan to Disney -- it ends up feeling a touch musty and overly familiar.
'John Carter' movie trailer'John Carter' movie trailerOpens March 9Watch video
Yes, Barsoom was a wondrous place when Burroughs first wrote about it in 1912, and when Stanton, Cameron and Lucas had their adolescent imaginations sparked by the stories in the following years. But at this point, it feels like we've been here before, that we've done this before.
When the titular hero -- played by the suddenly in-demand actor Taylor Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights") -- is first transported to the red planet by an alien device he finds in an Arizona cave, for instance, he is greeted by a race of towering alien beings. "Avatar" anyone?
And the desert setting -- with its curious collection of alien species, battling with humanlike tribes for control of the dying planet -- makes it feel as if it could be playing out in some distant corner of Tatooine. (I swear at one point I was waiting for the story's beautiful princess character and chief love interest -- played by the fetching Lynn Collins, in a slave-girl Leia get-up -- to slip and implore Kitsch's character: "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.")
Even the film's sweeping score -- composed by Michael Giacchino, another Pixar Oscar winner, for his beautiful score for "Up" -- feels like something we've heard before. At various times, I was reminded of the music from any number of John Williams scores, from "Star Wars" and "E.T." to "Harry Potter."
Derivative though it might be, that music helps boost the epic feel of Stanton's film, which -- with its broadness of scope, its generosity of emotion, its sprinkling of levity and its old-fashioned sense of black-and-white morality -- feels Spielbergian at times. That's particularly true in its scenes set on Earth -- and that's intended as a compliment.
There are plenty of entertaining moments to latch onto beneath the sci-fi tropes -- and maybe even a few that will inspire a new generation of storytellers. It just feels as if "John Carter" is a little late to the interplanetary party.

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