John Carter had a long journey to the big screen. Originally written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, the John Carter stories were serialized as Under the Moon of Mars in pulp magazine, The All-Story from February to July 1912 until they were published as a novel soon after Tarzan became popular. There were eleven different stories, published in four books. Several studios had options to turn John Carter of Mars into a film, but realized it was beyond the technical capabilities of Hollywood at that time. It's pretty remarkable that it took nearly 100 years for there to be the right technology to bring Burroughs' story to life.
Directed by first time live-action director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), the film begins on the planet Barsoom (a.k.a. Mars), where we encounter an airship battle between the cities of Zodanga and Helium. Commanding the Zodanga vessel is Sab Than, the Zodangan ruler. The Zodanga vessel is about to be conquered, but a ‘blue-ray’ (hehe) destroys the Helium airships and crew. This ray is emitted by the Therns, holy messengers of the goddess, Issus, whose only purpose is to keep order. Their plan: make Sab Than the ruler of the entire planet, Barsoom. Through manipulation, the Therns are forcing the marriage of Sab Than and Dejah, the Princess of Helium.
Back on Earth (a.k.a. Jasoom) John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), is searching for the Spider cave; a cave told to be full of gold. That is, until this Virginia Cavalryman is captured by the Army. During his escape, he comes across a Thern in the Spider cave of gold (not sure why he is there). During the fight, the Thern grabs a medallion, mutters some words, and sends Carter off to an adventure on another world.
After Carter arrives in this strange new place, he's surprised to discover that he can jump really well, so well that he impresses a local inhabitant known as Jeddak, who happens to be the leader of the Tharks (four-armed creatures with large tusks). Jeddak brings Carter to his village where he is held captive because Jeddak wants Carter to show how good a jumper he is. Before he can do so, they're interrupted by another airship battle. This time Dejah is running away from marrying Sab Than. Carter jumps to her rescue where, of course, she draws him into the conflict between Helium and Zodanga where he is forced to save her, Helium and Barsoom…ummm…Mars.
This is probably one of the most drawn-out plot lines I ever had to attempt to explain, and this is just the first forty minutes of the movie. Let’s just say that a lot more happens, deal? And I’m not even going to get into the John Carter/Jesus Christ theme. One thing I must mention-before the advertising nitwits at Disney got ahold of this film, is that it was originally called John Carter of Mars. They changed it to just John Carter because they felt women wouldn’t see it if it had Mars in the title. At the very end of the film, before the credits role, an image of the planet Mars (or Barsoom) comes up and the title, John Carter…of Mars, comes up along with the JCM logo. Did someone forget to mention that to the editors, and that’s why it wasn’t cut? Nothing about this was mentioned in the commentary.
Watching John Carter made me think back to when I first saw David Lynch’s, Dune. Great to look at, but you really have to follow the plot to understand. I’m not knocking the story at all, it’s just very convoluted. Now, if you want to talk about the script itself, then I will knock it. It's a cliché-ridden mess. It’s hard enough to hear some of this clunky dialogue, imagine being the actor that has to say, “there will be time for playfulness later.”
To add to the mess of the script, the acting in John Carter is OK at best. (With that script, it would be hard to give a good performance). Lynn Collins does the best she can with what she has to work with. Mark Strong will always be relegated to play villains (I think he needs a new agent). And last but not least-there's Taylor Kitsch. His performance is probably one of the worst that I’ve seen in many years. Can an actor look that bored in a film of this magnitude? Kitsch is completely miscast for the role of Carter, and in turn, it made me feel nothing for him.
If there's anything good in John Carter, it's the technical elements of the film that really stand out. Art direction and costume designs are especially impressive. The details in both, especially the costumes by Mayes C. Rubeo, are stunning. The musical score by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Up, Lost) is also a very good quality especially in the big action sequences, but the quieter moments are where his score really shines.
All of the problems associated with John Carter clearly lie with director, Andrew Stanton. He wrote an awful screenplay, and worst of all, he cast an awful actor as his lead. He clearly had no control on the project. He probably would have done much better if he had turned this into a fully animated production. Even with these issues, the film has some redeeming qualities. Unfortunately, these redeeming attributes are not enough to salvage John Carter.
John Carter 3D is presented in a 1080p MPEG-4 MVC video codec. It is a post-converted transfer that is so impressive, that I thought I was watching a native 3D presentation. Watching the film on my Samsung UN55D7000, I did not encounter any noticeable crosstalk. It is an impressive picture with exceptional depth. There are some instances of layering that bothered me some, but not to a great extent. Most of the last quarter of the film is played out at night, which diminished the 3D effect, but not too drastically. The opening scenes of the film play out in a rainy New York City, with a grey tint. Shadow delineations here are excellent. We then move to Arizona and Mars (Can’t tell the difference between the two). At this point, the films colors are very bright (what do you expect on Mars). The black levels are extremely deep. The details and textures in the transfer are great. Skin tones are appropriate to whatever planet you are on. I don’t think I have ever seen a bad 3D transfer from Disney, and John Carter 3D continues that run.
The DTS-HD 7.1 audio transfer for John Carter 3D is out of this world. Disney usually offers the best sound transfers in the industry, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It is a highly aggressive soundtrack that puts you in the middle the battles. The directional sound design is a marvel. Explosions, gun fire, hatchlings, Tharks – They are everywhere in the room. The rear and back surrounds enhance the effect of the airships. My favorite audio moments in the film belong to Woola, the dog-like creature that protects Carter. He pans throughout the room before attacking. The effect is excellent. Dialogue (as bad as it is) is absolutely clear, even with the levels of sound everywhere else in the room. The score by Michael Giacchino is great, but listen closely. He refers back to familiar themes from other projects. For example, in Chapter 10, there is a scene where Carter is battling the Tharks. The music is so distinct and it took me a short time to recognize it. It is very similar to a piece he did for the TV series Lost in Season Four called ‘Landing Party”. It is really the emotional highpoint to the film, and the music really enhanced it well. There does appear to be a sound drop at approximately 1:17:08 of the film-the scene where Carter fights the Tharks. It lasts only a couple of seconds. It sounds like the back surrounds drop out for a couple seconds.
3D Score: 9/10
The Extras for John Carter are definitely above the norm when it comes to Blu-ray extras. The best of the bunch are the two features. One discusses the history of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the legacy of John Carter. The other shows extensive day shooting one of the films action sequences. Both are filmed in high def.
Disney Second Screen: Wasn’t available at the time of the review, but supposedly offers more information and details in regards to the filming of John Carter onto your tablet.
360 Degrees of John Carter: A detailed feature that covers a 12 hour period during the filming of the battle in Helium at Greenford Studios in London. It shows pretty much everything that goes on during a shoot, from make-up and costumes, to craft services, to the tedium of a long day of shooting.
Deleted Scene with Option Commentary by Director Andrew Stanton: Ten scenes that added more details to the film, but were wisely removed, or in fact not even completed in the filming process. I probably would have kept the water scene in. It would have added some much needed humor.
Barsoom Bloopers: Nothing here of any value. Skip it.
100 Years in the Making: This is an excellent feature on Edgar Rice Burroughs and his writing of the John Carter of Mars series. Numerous filmmakers, including Andrew Stanton and Jon Favreau discuss the influence on them and their films. Favreau goes as far to comment on how George Lucus got ideas for Star Wars on Burroughs’ story.
Audio Commentary with Director Andrew Stanton, Producers Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris: This is a very informative discussion amongst the filmmakers. I found it to be a detailed conversation that not only went over the making of the film, but really delved into the source material. It’s obvious that these people are huge fans of the original stories, and attempted to stay true to them.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to expect from John Carter 3D. Never has a Hollywood studio screwed up on a project as much as they did here. The approved an obscure project with a budget of $250,000,000 with no stars, and a first time live-action director. Disney’s publicity department bungled everything, starting with the removal of “of Mars” from the title. That was one of the identifying factors to Edgar Rice Burroughs series of books. Oh yeah, they never mentioned that the film was based on Burroughs writing. Then they started a campaign with the tag line “Who is John Carter” (Raises hand—John Carter was Noah Wylie’s character in the TV series ER). The answer to the question was “who cares”. Needless to say, I expected a hot mess.
The film is really not that bad. It has a good story, but a terrible script. It has interesting characters, but incredibly wooden actors portraying these characters. I really wished that the people involved with the making of John Carter 3D would have loosened up a bit and had fun. It looks amazing-the sets, costumes, special effects (for the most part). But they took the material so seriously, that they sucked out every ounce of joy possible. It has no heart.
On the other hand, the Blu-ray transfer of John Carter 3D is phenomenal. The post-converted video transfer offers very little crosstalk, and excellent depth and layering, even in some of the darker scenes. It is a pristine image with no blemishes at all. The audio transfer is incredible. It gives you everything you could want in a reference title: aggressive sound field, impressive directional effects, stunning audio depth. Add to all this, some very good extras, including an excellent feature on Edgar Rice Burroughs that I wish was much longer. A Disney Second Screen will be available soon that will provide an added bonus to those interested in the John Carter universe.
Now comes the dilemma: do you purchase John Carter 3D? Even if the film is ok at best, it does offer some good escapism. The big reason to get it, though, is for the amazing transfer. Show it to people who haven’t converted to
3D Blu-ray, and they just may do so after seeing this. John Carter may be a success, after all.