JOHN CARTER 3D
(3D Blu-Ray/Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy Combo Pack)
Walt Disney Home Entertainment
2012/Rated PG-13/Running Time: 132 mins
List Price: $49.99 – Available June 5, 2012
“A John Carter movie? Yeah, like that’s ever gonna happen.” I’m sure I’m not the only fan who’s said those words throughout the years. The idea of a movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is almost as old as the novel itself which celebrates it’s one hundredth birthday this year. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, every major sci-fi property involving an Earth man on an alien world, has been adapted for live-action with the exception of the John Carter series. (That recent Antonio Sabato, Jr., Traci Lords DTV feature produced by those hacks The Asylum, doesn’t count!) George Lucas, James Cameron and many others readily admit that their respective works have been clearly inspired by Burroughs’ tales of a Confederate captain in the American Civil war who finds himself fighting in another kind of war on the planet Mars, also known as Barsoom. Despite the fact that fans like me have waited many, many years to see a live-action adaptation of John Carter, it may be both a blessing and a curse that it took so long. On the one hand, cinematic technology has advanced to the point where any visual you can dream of is now possible to photo-realistically create for the big screen. Burroughs described the world of Barsoom so vividly that until recently, it was nearly impossible to faithfully reproduce it in live action. On the other hand, so many have been inspired by the writings of Burroughs that to those unfamiliar with the material, it looks like a live-action adaptation that’s actually imitating past works inspired by it. In other words, a “rip-off”.
Like many John Carter fans, and dozens of other film critics across the internet, the books were first introduced to me by my father. My dad’s never been an avid reader of fiction, but after getting drafted into the Army in the late sixties, comic books and paperback novels were the best reading material he could get his hands on while stationed in Germany. Just as he introduced me to Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk, my father introduced me to the John Carter series during a trip to the book store. They were wonderful stories that I digested quickly, but even as a pre-teen, I never figured anyone would be interested in adapting them for the big screen because we had already experienced similar stories. Similar stories that were clearly inspired by John Carter.
Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau are just a few of the many directors who have been associated with attempts to bring John Carter to the big screen. Heck, I remember reading in a magazine back in early nineties that Sly Stallone was interested in starring in it. No. HELL NO! We’ll never know just how those adaptations would have turned out had any of them gone into full production and I’m rather glad. When director Andrew Stanton’s name came up a few years ago, I remembered him as the lovable goofball of the Pixar team, but also a guy who was passionate about movies. Seems everyone at Pixar is a movie lover which is no doubt one of many reasons why their films are so good. But Stanton as it turned out was also a die-hard John Carter fan, and perhaps more passionate about it than any other filmmaker previously associated with the project. Stanton’s directorial debut Finding Nemo is a wonderful children’s film, but it was his sophomore effort, WALL*E, that truly showed me what an amazing filmmaker he was becoming. The first third of that movie plays almost like a silent film, with little to no dialogue, and yet Stanton has you hooked from frame one, delivering a strong and emotional story with identifiable characters. That’s exactly the kind of respect and care that the John Carter series deserves and Stanton has done more than just meet my expectations.
Stanton’s John Carter is not a completely faithful adaptation of A Princess of Mars, but he captures the essence of Burroughs’ material, touching upon many of the themes and social issues the series raised as well as delivering an exciting popcorn movie. This is more of a “gourmet popcorn” movie, because even though John Carter doesn’t have as much action and thrills as your traditional major tent-pole film, it wisely chooses to focus on story and compelling characters. This is a film not only about a man who finds himself in a strange land, answering the call to adventure like most heroes, but of relationships forged and broken.
Taylor Kitch, whose biggest claims to fame are a run on TV’s Friday Night Lights and as “Gambit” in that Wolverine spin-off, may seem an unlikely candidate to play John Carter and for what it’s worth, the role doesn’t fit the actor like a glove. He has the difficult task of not just playing the lead in an epic motion picture, but as a conflicted hero representing many ideals. Kitch has the right look and wisely underplays the character, despite the fact that his performance starts out a little shaky early on in the film. The fact that the youthful looking actor is playing a battle-scarred and emotionally wounded Civil War veteran is a little tough to buy, yet Kitch grows more comfortable in the role as the film progresses. As we get to know John Carter, it turns out John Carter is also getting to know himself.
Defying orders to return to the battlefield, this time against Apache Native Americans, Carter seeks shelter in an Arizona cave only to be mysteriously transported to the alien world of Barsoom. Discovered in the Martian desert, by the war-like race of fifteen-foot tall, six-limbed creatures known as Tharks, Carter is taken in by their noble leader Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe). Astonished by the human’s ability to leap high in the air due to Barsoom’s low gravity, Tars treats Carter almost like a new pet, someone who might come in handy should trouble arise in the form of the warring “red men”.
Barsoom is populated by various species, none more powerful than the humanoid red men who populate the “predator city” of Zodanga. Current ruler Sab Than (Dominic West) has waged a war that has decimated most of Barsoom, thanks to a mysterious powerful new weapon he wields. Standing in his way and losing the civil war is the city of Helium led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), who out of desperation has agreed to marry his only daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to Sab Than in hopes of ending the conflict. But the strong willed Dejah has other plans, seeking an alternative solution and after crossing paths with Carter discovers he may be it. Though the gravity of Mars and his very different human physical structure have given Carter unique abilities, his primary goal is to return to Earth. Of course it’s safe to say that an intelligent, strong willed and incredibly beautiful woman like Dejah Thoris will no doubt attempt to change his mind.
Kitch truly finds a match when he acts opposite Collins, who gives perhaps the strongest performance in the film. Like Princess Leia, Dale Arden, Lois Lane or so many other heroines who have come before…or rather after Burroughs’ Barsoom series, Dejah Thoris is a fiercely intelligent and independent female lead who can hold her own against the main protagonist. Collins, who has appeared on HBO’s True Blood and even opposite Al Pacino in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, not only commands attention with her pitch perfect British accent, but helps make her character the emotional core of the story. Not bad for a gal from Texas. Dejah and Carter’s relationship initially begins as one of distrust because she is determined to sacrifice all to save her people from the evil of Sab Than. It’s a selfless approach, but she also rather selfishly attempts to manipulate Carter into joining her cause when in truth he’s not interested in choosing sides, but getting home. These characters share an interesting dynamic and both actors pull it off rather effortlessly.
Stanton’s obviously done his homework and tried to remain faithful to the source material while also crafting an original plot. One of the most fascinating elements of Burrough’s books is Tharkian culture, a war-like race which essentially were the author’s representation of Native American Indians. The primary Thark in the story is Dafoe’s Tars Tarkus, who initially “enslaves” Carter, yet in time the two forge a believable relationship of trust and respect. There’s an intriguing secondary story involving Tars and his shamed daughter Sola (Samantha Morton), both who see the arrival of Carter as a good omen. Like many who fear change, danger comes in the form of opposing Tharks Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church), hoping to challenge the throne and the venomous Sarkoja (Polly Walker), mysteriously eager to see Sola fail. The artistry involved in digitally creating these fantastic alien characters is incredible. From their expressive eyes to the texture of their green alien skin, the Tharks truly feel like a race of flesh and blood beings living in the ruins of the desert.
Films of this type are only as good as their villains and though West has played such a role before, Sab Than unfortunately feels like another baddie literally wielding an evil ray gun. That hardly matters since Mark Strong as the shadowy, yet very powerful Matai Shang picks up the slack, emerging as an antagonist with an agenda that may reverberate through future sequels. Strong is just such a brilliant actor and though he’s currently the top guy in Hollywood to cast as the heavy, he makes his villain different from others he’s played, truly posing a threat to our hero.
There have been complaints about the look Stanton has chosen for his Barsoom, specifically, the fact that the Martian landscape isn’t red and greatly resembles Arizona. There’s no reason to worry over something so trivial. Barsoom’s initial resemblance to Earth is a device meant to disorient Carter and us as well. Stanton doesn’t fall into that typical trap of explaining everything to his audience. We may only be a step or two ahead of the hero, but as the story unfolds we are learning just as he does. If we were too far ahead of the protagonist, he’d look like a fool and the story just wouldn’t work. Like the books, figuratively along for the journey is Carter’s nephew, a fictionalized version of Burroughs wonderfully played by Daryl Sabarra as he reads his uncle’s journal about his adventures on Barsoom.
As the story progresses, the incredible detail of the production design becomes apparent, revealing strange landcapes, ancient ruins and impressive technology that could only be alien. One design choice that impressed me was that Stanton decided to make Zodanga a mobile city. Burroughs’ description of the city’s location was flawed because it kept changing in each novel. To solve that problem, Stanton gives his Zodanga the ability to mechanically move across the Martian landscape almost like a caterpillar. The cities and vehicles of Barsoom have a very weathered and antique look about them, almost as if they were designed by an artist from the time of the novel’s original publication.
Burroughs’ Barsoom series initially began in pulp magazine serial form, incorporating not only American Western elements, but adventure found in swashbuckling pirate stories. Rather than sail the high seas, Carter finds himself engaging the enemy in battle aboard ships in the sky that sail on light. Stanton has crafted some rousing action sequences that exist to serve the story rather than titillate his audience. One of the most violent sequences in the film is inter-cut with a flashback of images that reveal where Carter’s inner rage originates. It’s a history of the main character that’s never even spoken of, not once. Stanton is a talented filmmaker confident enough to understand how smart his audience is and that we don’t need every detail explained. He’s also skilled at balancing drama, action, humor and even comic relief in the form of Carter’s new companion, speedy Martian “dog” Woola.
John Carter’s not a perfect film, the movie does have its flaws. It takes a little time to warm up to Kitch who as the straight man isn’t given the luxury of adding a little humor to his performance. Many of the conflicts in the story are resolved in a familiar manner, there are a number of weak secondary characters and though this is a beautiful looking film, the 3D process wasn’t really necessary. I’d call it a good start. A very good start. Unlike many big budget films, this picture strives to be something more and for the most part it succeeds. Yes, it’s a grand and epic science-fiction tale, but it also wisely takes the “less is more” approach, leaving you with the desire for more. It’s a healthy desire, because you want to know more, you want to learn more, you want to see more of this mythology, this world and of these characters. If that was Stanton’s intention, I’d say he’s succeeded. This feels like only the tip of the iceberg and as a moviegoer, the promise of revisiting a story you experienced and enjoyed is indeed exciting.
Video: Having landed his first live-action directing gig in the digital age, Stanton boldly chose to shoot John Carter on film. It gives the picture a rich film-like texture that makes the onscreen action feel all the more “realistic”. Digital provides a clean, sharp look and though the image can be degraded in post with artificial film grain, I applaud Stanton’s choice for choosing to go old school. 3D post conversion is a controversial process, but it looks like great care was taken with John Carter. I’ve seen this film in both film and digital IMAX 3D formats and this blu-ray release is their equal in presentation. One of my favorite 3D shots is Carter’s elevator ride in Zodanga where Matai Shang finally reveals his dark intentions. Stanton, doesn’t force the 3D and there’s a realistic sense of depth and space in the scene. The image is framed in the 2.39 to 1 aspect ratio.
Audio: Another superb DTS Master Audio mix from Disney, this one in 7.1 surround. What can I say? Wow! This is an active track always alive yet never overwhelming the dialogue. Great demo material for your home theater system as this mix ranks with the best of them.
Extras: Audio Commentary: Director Andrew Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins give a rather enthusiastic commentary, revealing their great passion for this material. They don’t completely geek out, and could be rather insightful as they discuss the film’s development, casting, production and visual effects. Not as loose as one of those Pixar commentries, but still engaging.
Deleted Scenes with Optional Director’s Commentary (HD, 19:00 mins): Ten deleted scenes including and an alternate opening. Many of them have been pieced together from finished footage, storyboards and pre-viz CG shots, yet still and insightful look into the creative and editing process.
100 Years in the Making (HD, 10:00 mins): Brief look at the life of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the various failed attempts filmmakers to bring his ‘Barsoom’ series to the silver screen over the last century.
360 Degrees of John Carter (HD, 35:00 mins): An interesting peek at a single production day on the set of John Carter that explores different departments that range from costume and makeup to Stanton directing on set as well as the cast and crew preparing to shoot scenes.
Disney Second Screen Interactive Experience: Explore John Carter’s journal with Disney’s Second Screen app. Simply download the corresponding app to your iPad or laptop, sync the film with your device, and enjoy additional content.
Barsoom Bloopers (HD, 2:00 mins): A pretty decent, but not always funny gag reel.
Also included are a DVD copy of the film in standard definition and a Digital Copy.