Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
From Academy Award–winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes John Carter – a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). John Carter is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.
Film (4 out of 5 stars)
John Carter has finally arrived in theaters after many previous attempts to hit the big-screen which never came to fruition. Legendary animation director Bob Clampett wanted to make a feature length animated version, Disney tried to make it in the 80s with Tom Cruise in the starring role and John McTiernan directing, and years later Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Konran, and lastly even Jon Favreau tried as well. John Carter of Mars seemed be doomed to never become a live action movie because of the extensive special effects needed for the aliens and for the Mars landscape. After Favreau’s attempt failed, Stanton let Disney know that they should buy the rights again so that he or someone else could take it on. After his earlier success as the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E to name just a few, Stanton got his wish and he was hired to make his first live action film.
The film’s many challenges would have daunted many directors as there’s the effects, the locations, and the fact thatJohn Carter of Mars has influenced so many movies, that despite being the trailblazer before them, it now seems like it’s the follower. In this new era of science fiction movies from Star Wars to Avatar (both of whom borrowed elements from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books), Stanton had to plot a way to remain true to the books yet freshen it up for modern audiences. As he said, “The view of science, future technology, and fantasy is very reflective of how people understood the world when the books were written (the first was published in 1912). I think that part of the appeal and charm of these books – and of these characters – is that they are not of our time; they’re of the post-Civil War era. I wanted Mars, as well as Earth, to have a bit of that flavor, to place it in its own category and not make it possible to even accidentally compare it to other, more current science-fiction or fantasy films.”
Does he succeed? For the most part the answer is yes, but not without some bumps along the way. The movie opens with a ton of exposition, names, and descriptions which might be a little too much for audiences unfamiliar with the book. There’s a lot of setting up to do since Disney is hoping that this will be the first movie of a new franchise. We meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) twice, first as a dead man in a clever framing device that bookends the film, then as an ex-Confederate soldier who lost a lot more personally than just the war and as a result he has no interest in supporting any other cause or fight. Now out west in Arizona, Carter is searching for gold when he is captured by Union soldiers and taken to meet Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) who wants Carter to work for him.
In a fun sequence, Carter continually to tries to escape and we start to see what kind of man Carter is. His independent and stubborn streak may not make him a model prisoner but it does make for an excellent future leader of Mars. When a firefight breaks out between the union soldiers holding Carter and some Indians, Carter gets caught in the cross-fire along with Powell who’s is shot off his horse. Risking his own life, Carter returns to save his one time captor and they make their way to a nearby cave to hide. Inside, Carter realizes that the cave is full of the gold he’s been searching for, but his joy is short-lived when a man appears out of nowhere and tries to kill him. Carter is too quick for the man and manages to shoot the man first. Hearing the dying man whispering words to a medallion, Carter takes the medallion and is instantly transported to Mars and the movie finally kicks into gear.
Once on Mars (although its inhabitants call it Barsoom), Carter discovers that the difference in gravity has made him stronger, faster, and able to jump huge distances with a single bound. He is quicky found by a Tharks scouting party led by a four armed alien Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe) who witnesses Carter’s giant leap to escape and orders his men to back off. While Tars takes Carter back to his people to show off his abilities, elsewhere a beautiful princess name Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is informed by her grandfather Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) that in order to save thier people, she will have to marry the tyrant Sab Than (Dominic West). Than is the Prince of Zodanga, and his goal of worldwide domination has been helped along by the appearance of Matai Shang (Mark Strong), leader of the mystical Holy Therns who has given him some powerful technology known as the “ninth ray” which obliterates anything in its path.
It doesn’t take long before Carter sees the princess falling to her death and he jumps to save her and ends up fighting Sab Than and his men who are dumbfounded by the appearance of the superhuman stranger. After rescuing the princess, Tars forces Carter to join the Tharks’ side after making him choose between freedom and Dejah who is still in their control. Now caught in another world’s civil war against his wishes, Carter learns of an ancient power source that can end the conflict and restore peace. Of course there’s complications along the way including gladiatorial games, an unwelcome wedding, and a clash between three armies, but nothing comes easy. Carter has enough trouble as it is, but it doesn’t help that Matai Shang has the ability to shape shift into any person he wants which makes it a lot trickier to beat him. With the fate of Barsoom on his shoulders, Carter will have to find a way to save Dejah and end the civil war once and for all.
I enjoyed John Carter but it takes too long to get into the thick of things and yet, it also feels like Stanton tried to cram too much into it. If this does end up being a franchise, it would have been better to spread out a lot of this plot across several movies. Instead, there’s so much exposition that it all flies by so fast that most people probably won’t have a clue what the difference is between a Thern and a Thark unless they’ve read the books. In fact, the whole subplot of the Holy Therns is under-cooked since they are introduced without hardly any explanation and seem to have more power than anyone yet have others like Sab Than wield it on their behalf. And speaking of technology, for as advanced as these Martian races seem to be with their flying airships and mobile cities, why are they still using swords? Other than the the whole “ninth ray” energy tech (which also is under-developed) these advanced people should be doing a lot better than swords and spears.
But then maybe that’s part of the charm of John Carter. This hybrid of westerns, science fiction, and creature features works despite all of the reservations I’ve stated. Despite starting slowly, the film keeps building momentum until it’s moving like a freight train by the end. The final reveal at the end of the movie finally explains the dual story-lines and it’s extremely well done and provides a nice satisfying climax to the movie along with its rightful title at the end of the movie - John Carter of Mars because at this point he’s earned it. Part of that is because of the fantastic special effects, but mainly due to the actors involved. Taylor Kitsch is a great choice for John Carter and he handles both the action and the dramatic beats well.
Willem Dafoe is great as Tars Tarkas as he infuses the character with gravitas, emotion, and utter ruthlessness at times. In his capable hands, Tars is a fully realized character who’s worthy enough to join the pantheon of other great digital characters like Gollum and Caesar. Dominic West does another nice turn as a villain who is very similar to the one he played in 300, but he does do them well. James Purefoy doesn’t have a large part but he does a great job with what he’s got. As good as all of them are in the movie, the film’s secret weapon is Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. Collins brings not only her stunning beauty to the part, but she also makes sure that she is more than a damsel in distress. In fact one of the film’s humorous callbacks was from a scene where Carter tries to protect her only to discover that he should be behind her once she gets her hand on a sword. The romance between Carter and her seems to move pretty fast, but honestly, who could blame him?
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
2D Video (5 out of 5 stars) 3D Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
These 1080p (2.40:1) transfers are another example of Disney’s high standards for the Blu-ray presentations. While the 2D transfer is better overall, both offer colors that jump off the screen, and super-fine clarity and detail. The costumes’ textures look real and detailed and the actor’s flesh tones look realistic and natural throughout the movie. The black levels are pitch black and suitably dark and the contrast is excellent too. There’s no blemishes to be found in either of these pristine transfers and they look just amazing.
For those of you wondering about how the 3D looked, I can say that this is one of the better post-conversions that I’ve seen but it’s not as good as if it had been filmed in 3D. This isn’t the kind of 3D movie that has stuff flying out of the screen at you but it does add a welcome sense of depth which works great for the vistas of Mars and for horse chases in Monument Valley. The 3D works best when it comes to the aliens and the structures which get a nice bit of dimensionality but it doesn’t due much for the humans. Should you spend the extra money on the 3D version? That depends on what you are looking for in a 3D film. If you want all of the crazy stuff coming at you and expect that for your hard earned money then don’t spend the extra money. If you want to enjoy the sprawling vistas of Mars with some extra depth, then I would recommend this 3D Blu-ray.
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
John Carter’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is another superlative effort that keeps up Disney’s tradition of excellence. This is a demo worthy mix that uses every channel to its maximum potential and effectiveness. The front channels offer some crystal clear dialogue that is intelligible even with the effects and music. The rear channels are kept busy throughout the movie, with the effects being placed accurately around the room with a dynamic range that covers the highs and lows perfectly. Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score is well presented here and it is well balanced with the rest of the effects and dialogue. I think it’s one of his better scores and it sounds incredible on this disc. Both of these lossless mixes are sure to make fans happy.
Extras (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
I’m a little surprised that there isn’t more special features on this set. What is here is in high definition and there’s some good stuff included, but I thought Disney would have pulled out the stops to give John Carter the best shot at success on home video to make up for its theatrical shortcomings.
- Audio Commentary – This is a commentary track featuring Director Andrew Stanton and the film’s producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins. They talk about the history of the project and illuminated how it was done and other tidbits about the production and it’s clear that they all love the movie. It’s always more fun to listen to commentary tracks with people who actually care about what they are talking about and this one is no different.
- 100 Years in the Making – An eleven minute featurette about the author of the Mars series of books, Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as a look at the many attempts that’s been made to bring John Carter of Mars to the bigscreen, which includes some comments from Jon Favreau who came very close to making his own version.
- 360 Degrees of John Carter – This extra offers the most in depth featurette on the disc as we follow Director Andrew Stanton around for a day as he visits the various departments to see the make-up, hair, special effects, stunts, and more over the course of the day. I found this to be really interesting and pretty comprehensive as it lasts almost thirty-five minutes.
- Barsoom Bloopers - A collection of bloopers that lasts around two minutes.
- Deleted Scenes - There’s almost twenty minutes of deleted scenes which you can view all together or individually. The ten scenes are mostly unfinished and come with optional director’s commentary as well as an intro from Director Andrew Stanton.
- Disney Second Screen -Download this app from the Apple App Store and sync it with John Carter to get access to extra content including a look at John Carter’s journal.
- Blu-ray version of the film
- DVD Version of the film
- Digital Copy
Summary (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Disney has sunk a lot of money into John Carter and I think that between the film’s unfortunate marketing and the mystifying and undeserved negativity that was directed towards it by some before it was even released, that the film was unjustly maligned. I hope I’ll get to see some sequels so they they can continue to improve on what worked and fix what didn’t. One part that definitely worked was Michael Giacchino’s score which is one of his best and I can’t wait to see the movie again, partly just to hear the score again. His work never disappoints but this time he’s really outdone himself and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets a nomination for it later. We don’t get to see too many movies with this kind of an epic feel to them so I really hope audiences will give it a chance despite it’s flaws.
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