The most infamously unsuccessful movie at the box-office thus far in 2012 (though Battleship and Dark Shadows may give it some competition), Andrew Stanton’s John Carter mixes elements of science fiction, fantasy, and western lore into a moderately entertaining but strangely old-fashioned adventure tale. The storytelling is a bit muddled in places, and the film overall lacks enchantment despite tons of special effects and a dazzling array of talented actors doing their all to make the rather prosaic narrative achieve a spark of delight. Alas, despite everyone’s best efforts, the film works only fitfully despite the noblest of intentions from all concerned.
John Carter 3D (Blu-ray Combo Pack)
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 132 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish
Subtitles: SDH. French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 49.99
Release Date: June 5, 2012
Review Date: May 27, 2012
On the run from the Union army in 1868 out to conscript a former Confederate soldier from the Virginia militia, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) discovers a medallion in a cave which transports him to Barsoom (which he later learns is Mars) where he finds that another civil war is taking place, this time between rival factions of the dying planet. In order to quell the war, the leader of Helium Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) has offered his warrior daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) in marriage to the powerful leader of the Zodangans Sab Than (Dominic West), not knowing that Sab plans to use his special ray to take complete control of the planet, guided by a group of mysterious god-like shape-shifters called Therns headed by the devious Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Meanwhile the nomadic four-armed creatures the Tharks are the first to discover Carter when he appears on the planet, and he eventually gains the trust of their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), becoming their ace in the hole of bringing the planet back under peaceful control.
With the über-strange names of all of the Martian characters (including the dog-like pet who early claims Carter as his master and who comes in handy at just the right moments), screenwriters Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon have their work cut out for them in making their viewers comfortable with their alien landscape, this apart from the bookended sequences set in 1881 involving Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs which cause some confusion in the initial viewing (but are clearer upon a second look, one of the great benefits of home video). With Carter’s Earth-oriented body mass allowing him to leap tall buildings and cliffs at a single bound, one is surprised that these leaping experiences (which happen throughout the movie) aren’t more exhilarating to watch, and the film is burdened by being set on the rather desolate-looking, arid Mars and with these green-skinned creatures that aren’t that appealing or endearing. Andrew Stanton covers the bases with battle scenes and a rip-roaring confrontation in the arena (promised in the early going and finally occurring much later in the somewhat overlong movie) with its echoes of Rocky as the crowd chants Carter’s assumed name (“Virginia” which is one of the movie’s recurring gags that works) after he’s inevitably victorious. But the fun is missing: the effects are fine (if rather standard), the actors are robust and doing their all, but there’s a déjà vu quality to all of it. The cosmetics may be different on the aliens, but the battles and fights are all too familiar, and with the leading characters not having much chemistry together, the movie emerges as rather blankly forgettable despite the hundreds of millions having been spent on attempting to make it unique.
Taylor Kitsch seems a bit young for the leading role and a little lacking in charisma, too, particularly paired with the exquisitely alluring Lynn Collins as his great love. She’s sensational: very Amazonian in her martial tendencies and with gorgeous make-up and costumes that accentuate her physical attributes. And the pity is that the film has an actor who has the necessary presence and age to pair seductively with Collins: James Purefoy who’s been relegated to the secondary role of right-hand man to Ciaran Hinds’ leader Tardos Mors. Dominic West makes a fine snarling villain, and Mark Strong is his obvious foil: the quietly calculating snake who lies in wait ready to strike at the right moment. Willem Dafoe makes effective use of his voice and body movements in his motion-captured performance as Tars Tarkas.
3D implementation – 3/5
The film’s 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Except for a few shots where images aren’t as sharp as the shots surrounding them, image clarity is first-rate with lots of detail to be seen in those Martian landscapes, the alluring costumes, and the facial features (including the hypnotizingly blue eyes of Lynn Collins’ Dejah Thoris). Flesh tones are accurate and appealing. Black levels are deep, and overall color saturation levels are always well controlled but quite rich. The white subtitles used when the Martians are speaking in their own language are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The film was converted into 3D after the fact which accounts for the rather unexceptional stereoscopic effects of the imagery. Of course there is no forward projection even if there is one shot of a gate explosion that sends sparks flying forward but which never reach past the front of the frame. There’s fair depth to the image, but nothing about it seems extraordinary. There is some fairly impressive use of people and objects on separate planes which gives the image its only moments of 3D illusion, but overall, the 2D version of the film on Blu-ray is not a compromise but rather the preferred version of the film for home viewing.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound mix does exactly what a big budget special effects extravaganza is expected to do aurally. There are plenty of split effects to keep the front and rear channels continuously occupied, and Michael Giacchino’s score gets superb placement throughout the soundfield. There’s an occasional bit of directionalized dialogue though most of it has been placed in the center channel. There are occasional problems, however, with some of the dialogue being heard over the explosive special effects and music.
The 3D disc in the set contains a 3D trailer for Frankenweenie.
The following are the bonus features on the 2D Blu-ray disc:
The audio commentary is provided by director Andrew Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins. Clearly the film was a labor of love for the three of them, and they enthusiastically comment with few breaks about the film’s production. Certainly the commentary was laid down before the film’s disappointing box-office reception occurred as they talk now and again of what they’d like to do in the next film in the series.
Disney Second Screen in an interactive app which can be downloaded to a laptop or iPad to offer illustrative material in journal form to accompany the film.
All of the featurettes are presented in 1080p.
“100 Years in the Making” is a brief 10 ¾-minute featurette discussing the original writing of the Burroughs’ stories and the various attempts by filmmakers to bring them to the screen including director Jon Favreau’s comments on his preproduction work at Paramount before giving up on making a movie of the tales.
“360 Degrees of John Carter” allows us to spend one day on the set watching director Andrew Stanton and his cast and crew prepare for the number of shots planned for that day. We see everything from make-up, hair styling and costumes to special effects, stunt work, and even craft services. This runs 34 ½ minutes.
There are ten deleted scenes which can be viewed separately or together in one 19-minute grouping. There is also an introduction to this section by director Andrew Stanton, and there is optional director commentary on the scenes as well.
“Barsoom Bloopers” is the 2-minute gag reel for the movie.
The disc contains promo trailers for The Avengers and Frankenweenie.
The third disc in the set is the DVD copy of the movie.
The fourth disc in the set is the digital copy of the movie which can be installed on Mac or PC devices.
3.5/5 (not an average)
John Carter was not a box-office hit (despite grossing something over $200 million worldwide, Disney is writing off the film’s losses at $200 million), and its somewhat lackluster story and over-familiar action sequences pretty much explain why. The hard work of the mostly excellent cast certainly is up on the screen, but the whole enterprise, whether watched in 2D or uninspiring 3D, never really quite catches fire.