John Carter (2D) (US - BD)
Gabe gets a chance to see the movie everyone is dumping on this year...
While trying to escape his Civil War responsibilities on Earth, runaway soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is magically transported to Mars, where the fate of the planet and its people ultimately rest in his hands. With surprising new powers, and epic battles, he rises to become the man he is meant to be and the hero he truly is.
John Carter has become the go-to joke in regards to money loss in 2011, and the behind-the-scenes politics have vastly overshadowed the quality of the film itself in both critical and cultural terms. This is genuinely sad, especially considering the prevailing sense that Disney had entirely given up on the film months before release. There may have been plenty of cause to reject the film, but there’s really no excuse for the studio’s behavior post release. Usually studios either continue supporting high profile box office flops, desperately spinning the bad news in hopes of changing the tide (see: Warner Bros and Green Lantern), or they quietly ignore the problem altogether (see: Disney and Mars Needs Moms), but Disney publicly distanced themselves from the film, revealing their losses and disappointment, all in bad taste. Though most reports place a hefty amount of blame directly on director Andrew Stanton’s shoulders, I don’t particularly want to believe the stories of a hard headed Stanton refusing to bend on any aspect of the film, but everything I read seems to verify that Disney gave the former Pixar director a lot of creative freedom and a lot of money to make the exact film he wanted to make and that even the lackluster ad campaign was largely his brain child. This makes me particularly sad, because I’m a huge fan of Stanton’s previous work, and had hoped that fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird’s success in live action ( Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) would bode well for Stanton’s chances. Apparently, it did not.
I really do have to give Disney a lot of credit for not getting too involved with the project in an effort to make it more ‘audience friendly’. Outside the silly re-titling of the film (the book is titled Princess of Mars, which Disney thought would chase boys away from the theater, and the series John Carter of Mars, which Disney thought might associate the film with epic flop Mars Needs Moms), no studio type demanded the Earth-bound side of the story be moved up to a modern timeframe, nor did they demand a more science-friendly approach to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ decidedly fantasy story (both rumoured changes were made during the film’s brief production time at Paramount). Disney’s faith in the project was mostly based on their faith in Stanton, who won them huge money and acclaim when he directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E for Pixar, but likely had a little something to do with the surprise success of another surreal, genre-mixing, firmly period set Pirates of the Caribbean films. This time, the experiment didn’t quite pay off and Disney is probably going to avoid another similar risk for some time.
Stanton was put in the difficult position of making A Princess of Mars appear somehow unique. Burroughs’ century old books have had a huge influence on popular science fiction and fantasy for decades, including George Lucas’ entire Star Wars series and James Cameron’s Avatar. This influence unfortunately led audiences to accuse John Carter of mimicking the films inspired by Burroughs. It seems like a no win situation, but Stanton could’ve taken steps to ensure the comparisons would be more conceptual than visual. In creating a film true to his vision of the books Stanton seems to have overlooked that an entire generation of readers envisions the John Carter of Mars universe as filtered through the art of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, who illustrated paperback covers for the series (along with Burroughs’ Tarzan series) during the ‘60s. At one point during the film’s long development cycle Robert Rodriguez was hired as director. Hot off the success of Sin City, Rodriguez had planned on approaching John Carter of Mars similarly, using mostly green screens in an effort to ape an illustrative style; in this case Frazetta’s rather than Frank Miller’s. Based on his increasing weakness as a director I wouldn’t prefer Rodriguez to Andrew Stanton, but his visual approach appeals to me more than Stanton’s bright and colourful Lucas and Cameron-like imagery. This isn’t to say I’d prefer a tonally darker or even more violent film than the one Stanton delivered (the film is rarely wanting for either), I just wish he’d taken more effort to avoid comparisons to other CG-heavy sci-fi adventures. Even Stanton’s family friendly sci-fi epic, Wall-E had a more texturally unique and challenging look. Coincidentally, Marcus Nispel tried and failed miserably to emulate Frazetta’s style when he tried to reboot the Conan series for Lionsgate in 2011 (which is especially funny, because Robert Rodriguez was also temporarily attached to that project). It’s important to note that, for the most part, Stanton and his design staff appear to have based their film around the art of J. Allen St. John, who was Burroughs’ preferred illustrator.
There’s a whole lot of information crammed into the first act, but Stanton and his more than capable co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon mostly manage to keep the story moving without losing the less sci-fi literate members of the audience. Structurally speaking, however, the rest of the film doesn’t quite hold to this standard, and loses its way somewhere around the top of the second act. Much of the fault lies with the original book’s episodic nature, and the fact that there is at least three hours of plot and character development to cull in only two hours time (which the film runs, minus credits). The loss of focus is trying and, oddly enough, John Carter may have felt shorter with a longer runtime. And the pace slows most drastically just when the build-up is finally finished and storyline finds its legs. Instead of an organically flowing adventure story, things turn into a trudge through more factoids that mark time between set pieces. The bigger issue is the climax and extended coda, where the promise of a sequel leaves too many threads untied, and an entirely unsuccessful romance is awkwardly and suddenly consummated. According to the commentary track the original cut of the film was somewhere around three hours, so it’s possible that the original script was soundly structured, and that overzealous editing is at fault for these issues.
Contrary to popular opinion, every ounce of the reported $250 million budget appears on screen. There are some split seams in the blended real and CG worlds, but nothing here is sloppily executed. Stanton rarely makes a particularly weak decision as an action director, consistently capturing the thrill of the moment, but never at the expense of the scale of the sequence. The action is also often punched up with strong character work, and usually accentuated with a genuinely rousing emotional kick (the catharsis of inter-cutting of Carter’s melancholy past during the Warhoon massacre is the film’s high point). Stanton also changes things up, rarely repeating a particular gag or tonal beat. He also avoids overusing tired clichés like speed-ramping or shaky camera effects (hand-held camera styles are utilized, but usually to increase scale, not to create chaos). The final battle is successful as a standalone sequence, but is the most disappointing of the major set pieces because it feels rushed by the oncoming narrative climax. There’s plenty of thrill and scope in the action, but the overall experience putters in terms of real awe between these sequences. This disappointment doesn’t really mark the film as bad, or even unfun, it just marks it as something less than the creative parties and material promised. I never got that rush of watching a new universe unravel. I never felt like I was watching the next Star Wars or Lord of the Rings and was unfortunately reminded more of the lower-tier charm of Stargate and Chronicles of Riddick.
This film has its share of missed comedic opportunities and flat-falling jokes, but it also has plenty of genuine laughs – the one thing neither Avatar nor the Star Wars prequels ever managed to achieve (Ewan McGregor’s best efforts notwithstanding). This success lies in the talents of the three credited writers. Stanton and Mark Andrews have a solid comedy backing in their animated work ( Toy Story 1 and 2, Monsters Inc, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), while Michael Chabon is renowned for his less broad comedic abilities, including his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. This team rarely gels narratively, but tonally are entirely in step. Much of the charm is found in the digital characters, which would, of course, land right in the middle of Stanton’s wheelhouse. Woola, Carter’s cutsey pet Martian dog, is among the film’s greatest achievements. Not only is he a fully integrated special effect, he’s genuinely cute and amusing. Stanton should’ve earned Disney a fortune in Woola toys. The Tharks take a little time to get used to, but are ultimately quite loveable creatures with more character and depth than most 100% CG movie critters. I admit it’s hard to tell them apart (a few strong performances aside), but there’s no denying the film suffers whenever they’re missing from the screen.
Taylor Kitsch has bared a heavy brunt of criticism, but I don’t see his performance as particularly weak; rather, the character of John Carter is the one thing most steadily damaged by over-familiarity. His growth as a character is ingrained in his character type – the reluctant antihero. We’ve seen this arc hundreds of times and, outside of some potent comedy, there just isn’t much here for Kitsch to work with. Lynn Collins does much more with her limited means, but sadly, her romantic chemistry with Kitsch never really works despite the best efforts of both parties. There’s just no time to care about the relationship budding on the battlefield and one really expects more from Stanton, who created one of the more affecting romantic relationships in recent memory between two robots that communicated mostly through a series of chirps and beeps.
I’m surprised to discover that John Carter was shot in Panavision anamorphic using traditional 35mm film. I swore that this heavily digitally composited film had been shot using state of the art digital HD cameras, but apparently Andrew Stanton (like Brad Bird) was interested in breaking away from the digital format entirely for his first live action film. For the most part, Stanton and cinematographer Daniel Mindel do quite well with the format’s idiosyncrasies, using fine film grain to create texture, and reveling in the artefacts created by the anamorphic format, but the strong detail levels also tend to create some unattractive blending issues between the film-based footage and the digital augmentations. At best, it looks beautiful; at worst, it looks kind of like The Phantom Menace. The digital elements are consistently sharper, even in the shallow focus, which sets them apart from the more limited film elements, which turn a bit mushy in comparison. Close-up textures and details match very well however, and the utter sharpness of important bits is never short of impressive. I personally enjoyed the high contrast, dark and cool look of the Earthbound sequences a little more than the much brighter and warm Martian sequences, but these are really only present for the sake of contrast. 35mm just tends to look better when dealing in contrasts. Once we hit Mars things certainly become more stylized, and the quality standards of the transfer change. There are still delightfully rich black levels, but the vibrant qualities of the omnipresent yellows and reds really take control, leaving even the darkest sequences tinted warmly. The warm hues are highlighted with blues that are sharply cut without bleeding, and the purity of the hues is maintained without too much digital noise.
There is no shortage of multi-channel action on this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. The complexity and consistency of the track is so close to perfection that I’m finding it hard to find anything interesting to say about it. As per usual, the action scenes are the standouts, and these are strongest while contrasting each other. The first big set piece is an airship battle that focuses largely on the sound of the film’s technology, and is designed to sound buoyant and swift. In contrast, the second big action beat is quieted by the mournful musical score to sell the emotional impact of the scene. Then the arena sequence revels in the primal sounds, like the smashing of rocks and the roaring of giant beasts. Directional effects and high dynamic ranges define this sequence. The climatic smash-up in Helium is the most bombastic sequence in the film, and feels like a culmination of every previous sequence’s aural excesses. Other fun bits of dynamic range often occur at the top and bottom of scene changes, where the sound designers tend to use a strong build up of noise as a contrast between cuts, and the creepy crawly sound of the ‘blue’ technology is about as close as the mix gets to Star Wars and Star Trek levels of unique sound. The centered dialogue is clear and consistent, but a bit too soft overall, even when they’re delegated to the stereo channels. Michael Giacchino is quickly becoming my favourite film composer, especially following his work with Pixar and JJ Abrams, and this composition does not disappoint. I only wish he’d found a couple of hummable themes. The soundtrack doesn’t quite find an ideal mix between the music and sound effects during the action sequences, but, overall, the score is presented richly, and with the proper LFE influence.
Extras begin with a commentary track featuring director Andrew Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins. The track never deals with the film’s disappointing box office or reviews, but rather than an attempt to avoid controversy this is likely due to the timing of the recording (which was probably pre-release). The track is focused and informative without ever sounding too formal or stale. The participants work well together, and discuss the long process of bringing John Carter to the screen with affection and humour. Stanton also manages to praise his cast and crew without placating them, which is infectious, and makes me want to appreciate the film more than I did. The second big extra here should be the Disney Second Screen option, which promises interactive and behind the scenes features on the viewer’s computer or wireless device. Unfortunately, Disney doesn’t put these things up early for reviewers, so I’ll have to wait until after the release date to discover the qualities of this particular extra.
Next up is 100 Years in the Making (10:40, HD), an all too brief look at Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work throughout the years, the huge influence the John Carter of Mars series had on popular fiction, and the process of bringing the film to the big screen. It includes interviews with Stanton, Iron Man director Jon Favreau, writer Michael Chabon, producer Jim Morris, author Steven Barnes, actors Willem Dafoe and Taylor Kitsch, philosophy professor Dr. Robert Zeuschner, production designer William Stout and super-physicist Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, along with an actor reading from interviews with Burroughs, period photographs, test footage from an older animated film, and paperback and film production illustrations. This is followed by 360 Degrees of John Carter (34:30, HD), a raw look at a day on the set hosted by Stanton, including the make-up, costuming, catering, effects prep, pre-viz, direction, cinematography, direction, motion capture acting (with Willem Dafoe) and stunts.
The disc also features ten deleted scenes (19:00 including intro, HD) in various points of completion, all with optional commentary from Stanton, a blooper reel (2:00, HD), and Disney trailers.
John Carter is a perfectly entertaining epic with its heart and money in the right place, but, considering the parties involved and wealth of narrative material, it really should’ve been great. I assume there won’t be a sequel anytime soon, but I hope that the film’s failure won’t mark an end to director Andrew Stanton’s live action career, because of everything wrong with the film his basic directing talents are not in question. This 2D release looks fantastic outside of some minor issues between the blending of CG and 35mm elements, the DTS-HD MA sound is demo-worthy, and the extras are just above average, short of the upcoming Disney Second Screen option, which won’t go live until the release date.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 5th June 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, DVS 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director's Commentary, Disney Second Screen, 100 Years in the Making, 360 Degrees of John Carter, Deleted Scenes with Optional Director's Commentary, Blooper Reel, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Length: 132 minutes
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