John Carter

Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (based on the book A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
Stars: Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), Samantha Morton (Sola), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas),Thomas Haden Church (Tal Hajus), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Ciarán Hinds (Tardos Mors),Dominic West (Sab Than), James Purefoy (Kantos Kan), Bryan Cranston (Powell), Polly Walker (Sarkoja), Daryl Sabara (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2012
Country: U.S.
John Carter Blu-Ray
John CarterJohn Carter, an ambitious science-fantasy spectacle based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 serialized novel A Princess of Mars, is an awesome folly, a misguided project of genuinely enormous proportions that feels like exactly what it is: an impersonal product of franchise-hungry corporate culture. Although its dismal first week at the box office is already drawing comparisons to the epic failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980), the two couldn’t be any different: the colossal failure of Heaven’s Gate stemmed from the monomaniacal control and unchecked authority of its newly minted auteur, Michael Cimino, while John Carter’s failure is a product of so many corporate cooks stirring the pot that it winds up flavorless.

The film’s vast scale—in terms of both what we see on screen and its potential for marketing spin-offs in every direction—is what sold Disney executives on investing a reported $250 million into it, but this scale is ultimately what buries the film and makes it such a chore to sit through. There is no room left for any kind of human emotion or interesting subtext or off-kilter humor; it’s all surface, desperately hammering away at our senses but only succeeding in making a lot of noise. It is particularly shocking, then, that the film marks the live-action feature debut of director/co-writer Andrew Stanton, who helmed the Oscar-winning Pixar hits Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL•E (2008). Everything that worked in those movies collapses here: the humor, the humanity, the chemistry between characters, the fun. Perhaps because he was under pressure to please everyone, Stanton mixes together so many different tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure that he ends up with a lumpy stew that reminds you of all the movies that John Carter resembles, but that you liked better.

This is a particularly cruel paradox given that so many beloved films in those genres—from Star Wars (1977), to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), to Avatar (2009)—owe a great debt to the groundbreaking imaginative work in Burroughs’s pulpy Barsoom series, of which A Princess of Mars was the first entry. Of course, Burroughs was writing those books at a time when human flight was still a mind-boggling feat and astronomer Percival Lowell was theorizing that there were canals on Mars, so any direct translation of the material is immediately problematic. What George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron did with such success was adapt the spirit of Burroughs and the other pulp writers to a modern audience (Robert Zemeckis reportedly turned down an opportunity to adapt the Barsoom stories years ago, saying that Lucas had already plundered them). For Stanton, modern simply means CGI and 3D, and he and co-screenwriters Mark Andrews (another Pixar vet making his feature debut as a writer) and Michael Chabon (Spider-Man 2) make the deadly mistake of recycling Burroughs’s Victorian-era view of the cosmos wholesale. This requires a major conceptual leap for viewers who know Mars is barren and are used to their science fiction having at least a modicum of pseudo-scientific plausibility.

The film’s titular hero, played with dull muscularity by Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who has lost his virtue and sense of honor after the war. While searching for gold in the Arizona territory, he comes across a cave where he (or, to be more precise, a copy of him) is zapped millions of miles through space onto the surface of Mars, which looks a great deal like the American West (much of the production was shot in Utah). Once on Mars (or, as the locals call it, Barzoom), Carter realizes that the planet’s diminished gravity and his dense bone structure give him superhuman strength and the ability to leap great distances. He also finds that he is unable to escape civil war, as he is quickly drawn into a long-running internecine feud between Mars’s two human-like societies: the red Martians, who reside in a city called Helium, and the blue Martians, who reside in a moving city called Zodanga (the colors have nothing to do with their appearance). The blue Martians have on their side a group of bald mystical beings called Therns, who have godlike capabilities. Also in the mix are the Tharks, a race of tall, gangly, four-armed green humanoids who maintain a more primitive society and try not to get in the crossfire of the other two warring groups. Carter’s involvement in the war escalates in direct proportion to his romance with Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a red Martian princess whose hand in marriage has been given over to Sab Than (Dominic West), the leader of the blue Martians.

There is quite a bit more to the plot, but it all feels like much ado about nothing because none of the characters emerge as particularly interesting or memorable, and as a result the stakes feel depressingly low. Kitsch’s John Carter is beefy and handsome and has his own long locks, rather than the hair extensions Jake Gyllenhaal sported in Disney’s other big-budget misfire The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), but he never grabs our imagination. Even with a tortured backstory and an admittedly interesting framing device (taken from the novel) in which his story has been passed down to a fictional version of Edgar Rice Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara), Carter is little more than a handsome cipher, which is a particularly painful liability in a film that bears his very generic-sounding name (why the title was changed from John Carter of Mars, which maintains at least some intrigue, to the bland John Carter is a mystery). Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) struggles mightily to turn Dejah Thoris into a feisty heroine, and she comes close from time to time, but ultimately takes a backseat to Carter’s bare-chested heroics. Other notable actors, including Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, and Ciarán Hinds, lends their voices and body movements to various Tharks, but they make little or no impact. Lost in the economies of scale that favor huge vistas, massive battles, and CGI hoards over human feeling, no one has a prayer of making an impression, and as a result John Carter quickly slips away, drowning in a torrent of its own chaotic, corporate-driven ambitions.

John Carter Blu-Ray + DVD

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • Disney Second Screen
  • Audio commentary with filmmakers
  • 360 Degrees of John Carter ????
  • Deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Andrew Stanton
  • “Barsoom Bloopers”
  • “100 Years In The Making” featurette
  • DistributorWalt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
    Release DateJune 6, 2012

    Because the screener I received contained only the 2D version of the film, I can’t comment on how well John Carter’s post-conversion three-dimensionality transitions to the home theater environment, but I can say that the 2D version is top-notion in terms of both video and audio. The 1080p/AVC-encoded image is overall superb; it is beautifully realized and impressively sharp, which brings out the finest details and textures in the image, and it boasts excellent contrast and color saturation. The reddish hues of the Martian landscapes have just the right tint, while other primary colors pop off the screen in the spirit of the story’s pulp origins. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack is about as immersive as it gets, making full use of the surround channels and the subwoofer to realistically draw us into the film’s various battles. Even if (like me) you find the film lacking in terms of story and character, its technical qualities are generally outstanding and are well served by this Blu-Ray.
    Given the enormity and lengthiness of its production, there is plenty of interesting background information about the making of John Carter, and the Blu-Ray does not disappoint. The Blu-Ray features the “Disney Second Screen” viewing mode, which allows you to sync an iPad or laptop to your Blu-Ray player to look at ????? while watching the film. On the disc itself we have an informative and lively audio commentary by co-writer/director Andrew Stanton and producers John Morriss and Lindsey Collins. “360 Degrees of John Carter” is a fascinating 34-minute featurette that focuses on one particular day of production (the 52nd day, to be specific) and everything that goes into it, from food services, to hair and make-up, to corralling dozens of extras, to the actual feat of shooting on-set. It’s a great, focused look at the massive effort that goes into a film of this sort. The 10 deleted scenes, which run about 20 minutes in length total and range from nearly completed sequences with visual effects to rough cuts with temp animation and storyboards standing in for unfinished effects work, can be played with optional commentary by Stanton, who explains why the scenes were eliminated. The title of the 11-minute featurette “100 Years In The Making” refers to the fact that the film arrived exactly 100 years after Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first Mars story. The featurette focuses quite a bit on Burroughs’ life as a writer, and includes interviews with Stanton, screenwriter Michael Chabon, and Jon Favreau, who developed a John Carter project at Paramount for a year before discarding it. One of the most fascinating glimpses in the featurette is a few seconds of animation by Bob Clampett, a Warner Bros. animator who wanted to make a feature-length version of the Burroughs stories back in the 1930s. Also on the disc is a two-minute blooper reel.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (1.5)

    James Kendrick

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