David Bowie always talked about the Spiders from Mars. John Carter may have to fight them.

John Carter, on the surface, looks like Avatar set in Prince of Persia. Having just seen a screening, it goes in a very different direction.

Remember that movie a few years ago, where one man who didn’t fit in on his world went to another civilization, where they look like they’re from ancient history but have magic super-science that looks like religion? And then he has to find his confidence, win their respect and lead them into battle to save them from annihilation against a warring superpower? Don’t forget the skimpy hot but smart, sharp-witted and silk-voiced princess and her rich but emotionally-unavailable evil suitor.

It sounds like a lot of movies. Star Wars 4-through-6. Stargate. Atlantis. Yet somehow, this Disney-written sci-fi does all of that and makes this kingdom on Mars feel heavily down to Earth.

Its secret is in its moral ambiguity. John Carter, retired Confederate general and lone widower, is a man with no friend and no cause. After so much war and death he bitterly wants to be left alone. When an alien in a cave sends him to the barren planet of Barsoom “Mars,” he’s caught by a rugged, Spartan tribe: the Thark. Each must fight and prove themselves to survive, and so must Carter.

The rest of the planet, he finds, is hardly more hospitable. When word gets out that this Earth-man can jump– as in “leap tall buildings in a single bound”– in Barsoom’s low gravity, warlords and victims all want him as a weapon. Even the princess, who wants him to save her kingdom, doesn’t garner his sympathy.

But, as the trailers all tell, he fights. His moral compass twitches until it slowly comes to life, and Carter re-learns there is still honor in fighting to save something worth keeping. Bloodshed is grim and without glory, but it is right.

There’s a reason the story is still familiar. John Carter was written 95 years ago. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Princess of Mars” novel series invented the genre. Every copied story arc since then has come from his fans.

If John Carter has another weakness, though, it’s the villains’ choices of words. Wall-E director Andrew Stanton suffers from that old vice of children’s movie directors: writing fantasy that sounds like, well, fantasy. Its villains speak in little riddles through smooth expressions and sound flowery as can be. The most evil of characters are almost, just almost, cliche to the bone. The roughness of the world is antagonist enough without them.

There’s a reason these movies sell out. They offer fantasy on a mass scale. In 3D or not, John Carter journeys across an entire world, and Disney shows it all. Culture, history, tradition and even biology go deep. Those images will stay with you for days. It may have been 24 hours since I’ve seen it, but they may last for years.

So, go see John Carter. Whether for its grit, for its beauty or for its legacy, go see John Carter.

Final Count: 4 1/2 Stars.


It isn’t Twilight.  Nor Trueblood.  Nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer nor, good grief, LeStat.  It’s kind of it’s own thing.

The movie “Daybreakers” is equal parts “Equilibrium,” “Children of Men,” “Repo” and something completely different with vampires.  It’s well-written enough that it might become an instant classic.

In the future, almost everyone is a vampire.  The cities look like a noir film of Metropolis as pale, sullen vamp-people go about their nightly lives.  They mix blood into their coffee and store it in wine bottles, like very classy bloodsuckers.  All the humans they capture are kept in something like the Matrix and farmed for their blood. The catch?  There isn’t enough blood because there aren’t enough humans.  The vampires that don’t drink enough blood are turning feral, becoming ugly Gollum/bat hybrids that would make Nosferatu look well-to-do.  Softie scientist Edward (ironic snicker) Dalton is trying to engineer a blood substitute, but he still has to work out a few kinks.  His last test subject exploded.

But– wait for it– there is a resistance movement of humans.  They carry crossbows and are a bit jumpy, but don’t want to kill all the living dead just yet.  Instead they think they know how to turn them human again.

Throughout all the commercials, I was convinced it would be a pretty hack-and-slashy action-junkie film.  That’s how they marketed it.  But it was still extremely well-done.  Vampires have long been seen as symbols, sometimes of elitism and sometimes of primal urges.  This did justice to the former, more Dracula than Blade Trillogy.  Life hidden from the sun looks almost feasible, with very-tinted car windows, underground hallways and almost no wood anywhere– too much of a danger to use as a stake.

The action scenes are still worth remembering.  It had more red maple syrup than the average dystopia flick, and yes, more shattering glass and vamps that spontaneously combusted when shot.  It had an evil CEO, occasional car chases, and the obligatory car-plowing-into-glass-building.  But not every stereotype was seized: no frantic main-character sex scene wormed its way in.  And there was no Catholic-esque conspiracy group or grim atempts of bloody religious symbolism.  Not even an attempt at a tagline working in the movie title.  While the word “realistic” is hard to apply to vampire/action movies, “Daybreakers” nearly was.

And though much of the footage itself was black-and-white, the storyline wasn’t.  It reminded us all that the undead were people too.