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.

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In the words of Kevin Flynn, co-star of Tron: Legacy, “perfection” is achievable– but so rare that it’s almost unnatural. But at the same time, he adds, looking to his son, “it’s right in front of us.”

Whatever was in front of us in Theater 17, it sure wasn’t perfection.

TRON: Legacy was a project six years in the making.  When the preview was screened at Comic-Con, the viewing room screamed with approval.  Now, 28 years after the Tron saga began, its sleek, neon sequel is here.  With that much time to prepare, and $170 million poured into it, how could it have gone wrong?  What was it missing?

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Distinction

If you close your eyes during Tron, it’ll start to sound all too familiar.  Our hero is the quintessential loner hacker wise-cracker motorcycling rebel without a cause, Sam Flynn.  Like an urban James Dean with pointier hair.  He’s the heir to his father’s video game enterprise, but with no executive power in it, he still runs from the cops and jumps off a building to sabotage it.  His deep-seated father issues?  Caused by a dad that mysteriously disappeared 20 years ago while working on a revolutionary new game.

Enter the workaholic Dad Kevin Flynn, idealist programmer and producer of awkward 80’s slang (“radical, dude”).  He’s hiding out in a rather-modern studio apartment with a zen cushion and a view of The Grid, the digital metropolis he helped create.  Kevin’s Messiah complex makes Aslan’s look like a minor prophet– after all, he did create this world, before its people turned against him.  His disciple, a curious little cyber-warrior-princess and Sam’s inevitable love interest, adds to that.  She’s the last of her kind, a kind of sentient humanoid program that was almost killed off in “the Purge” by the villain.

Kevin’s Fallen World was corrupted by his evil twin– almost literally, a program based on himself.  In order to create the “perfect system,” the twin named Clu rebelled against Kevin and led the programs’ revolution to become its dictator.  He now kills them at will, because that’s what movie dictators do.  His master plan: create a legion of faceless ninja-stormtroopers, escape into reality and take over the world.

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Cohesion

When creating an entire universe, however, it’s important that it make sense.  Tron was a bundle of ideas, but so many of them turn into loose ends that are never explained or resolved.  This section doesn’t cover half of them.

When Sam first gets zapped into the game, he gets caught by the authorities, where he’s taken to a room to be stripped and given the trademark scuba-suit by robot supermodels.  No one knows that he’s human, but he’s instantly sentenced to fight to the death as a gladiator.  What kind of judicial system is this?  Is this part of the “perfect system” everyone, including Kevin, says the Grid is?  Another detail: Sam hasn’t fought in the “disc wars” in his life, but still makes it to the final round?

Kevin lives out in the rocky digital wasteland outside the Grid, which no programs can enter.  He’s been there for years with his disciple reading classic literature to her.  Later in the movie, not only does Clu fly a ship over to his house, but his entire secret base is off-the-grid too.  What was he waiting for?

Most of the revolutionaries seemed to meet each other while clubbing.  Was there some sort of “resistance” movement of rebel programs?  Couldn’t some of them stay alive long enough to talk about it?  How does a program have a change of heart and buck the system?

Near the end, Tron himself– the people-loving fighter program from the original– makes a guest appearance.  He says one line, saves the day (for a number of minutes) and then falls into oblivion.  There had been two awkwardly-worked-in hints that he was there earlier, but just as many hints that it couldn’t possibly be him.  His Vader-esque change of heart, complete with changing from villainous-orange to heroic-blue, felt like a last-minute idea.  Why wasn’t this fleshed out more?

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Perfection

Clu was designed to create the perfect system.  That’s how he explains his mutiny against his human creator and then his knee-jerk killings.  With a city full of programs, Clu makes… he makes… a glow-in-the-dark Gotham City.

The first person Sam sees in the city is a homeless man in a light-up poncho, shivering in an alley.  He then meets a Lady Gaga cosplayer dressed like a Macintosh, who takes him to a penthouse rave.  The rave and much of the city are run by a bleach-dipped David Bowie on happy pills, whose lines sound like they’re crafted by someone who’s heard of the British only in films.  Were these the idyllic people of Clu’s great metropolis, or of a Warhol-fan hooked on Starcraft?

How does a perfect system end up with gladiator games?  Why would a Utopia full of programs turn out to watch strangers off the street fight to the death, playing full-body versions of Pong and Snake?

There’s something else missing, something which would seem like a given in a digital world: nerds.  Tron geeks hoping to see Tron geeks in the film would want to see it, but it’d also seem like a necessity that they exist.  Why were their none?  In a world full of dictators, gladiators, clubbers and race car drivers, not one of them is a nerd.

For all the monologues that wax on perfection, The Grid doesn’t have it.  The programs themselves don’t have it.  And despite Kevin’s endearing words to his son, Tron: Legacy‘s humans don’t have it either.

The movie does have one perk.  Two hours of watching black-orange-and-blue makes driving home at night look radical.

Editor’s Note: as of press time, Tron: Legacy has made $43.6 million in its opening weekend.