Blu-Ray Review: John Carter

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When it comes to John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s film version of the sciene-fiction classic, John Carter of Mars,the conversation seems to focus on the film’s staggering budget and lack of profitability.  Unfortunately, the subject that should be under discuss, the one destined to be lost under all that schradenfreude, is what a great movie Stanton has actually made.  I was one of the few who saw the film in theaters, and having not read the books, I admit to getting a little confused.  There is a lot of history packed into the world of the film, much of it involving complicated character names, locations and titles.  However, upon second viewing (with subtitles to keep track of the names), I came to realize what an accomplishment this film really is.

John Carter is a former military captain who finds himself teleported to the planet of Barsoom (or Mars, as we know it).  While there, he finds himself an integral player in an epic power struggle between good and evil.  Initially discovered by the Tharks, four-armed green aliens standing about nine feet tall, his journey takes him to the city of Helium, where he ends up falling in love with Dejah Thoris, the “princess of Mars.”  As Helium comes under attach from the evil kingdom of Zodanga, under the supernatural leadership of a mysterious group known as Therns, it’s up to Carter to use the abilities the Martian atmosphere provides to lead Helium to victory and prevent Dejah Thoris’ wedding to the evil Sab Than.

As mentioned above, it’s pretty complicated if you’re not familiar with the source material.  However, it’s worth piecing together.  The visuals are spectacular, with sprawling cityscapes, thrilling aerial battles and endlessly fascinating alien creatures.  This is Stanton’s live-action deput, having directed the Pixar classics Finding Nemo and Wall-E.  Having honed his visual style on those films, I found myself in awe of the images he was able to convey in live-action.

My only real criticism of the film lies in the casting.  The Tharks are all performed through Motion-Capture, and almost every performance is spot-on, especially Willem Dafoe as the leader.  However, I was less than impressed with the actors chosen for the human characters.  Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch is servicable as John Carter, but I found him lacking charisma in the role.  Giving off an air of boredom, he never truly seems invested in the character.  Likewise, Lynn Collins is perfectly acceptable eye candy as Dejah Thoris, but it felt like she was just reciting her lines the whole time.  The only sequence where she seemed to show any spark of life is when she briefly plays a shape-shifter taking on the form of Dejah Thoris.  Other than that, her performance left a lot to be desired.  However, these are minor compaints in the grand scheme of things.

The original novel, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is a landmark feat in the world of science fiction.  Having influenced everything from Superman to Star Wars, and even modern-day classics such as Avatar, Burroughs created a science-fiction template that forever altered fictional storytelling.  As a result, there are those who believe John Carter “ripped off” the above-mentioned classics, amongst others.  While this film, obviously, came after those, the story came well before.  In fact, the original novel was published 100 years ago.

Now on Blu-Ray and DVD, one of the bonus features actually provides a look at the 100 year history of the character.  It’s a fascinating feature, providing an analysis of Burroughs himself, along with an examination of the story’s place in the pop-culture landscape.  There are interviews with filmmakers including Jon Favreau (who plays a small role in the film), writers and even an astrophysicist.

Another feature included is almost 20 minutes of deleted scenes with commentary by Stanton.  In watching these, it’s apparent just how much insight Stanton has into the filmmaking process from his time at Pixar.  His commentary details the actual structure of scenes in order to maximize storytelling and focuses not only on cut scenes, but the redistribution of material.  Several of the sequences aren’t finished, and are presented in storyboard, rough animation, etc.

There’s also a blooper real, which was a complete waste of time, a commentary track from Stanton, and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, and my favorite feature, 360 Degrees of John Carter.  This is a documentary running almost 35 minutes that details an entire day in the film’s production, from every department’s point of view.  It demonstrates just how complicated a production such as this can be, and provides fascinating insight into the organization of a film set.  I’m always a sucker for these behind-the-scenes features, and this is truly a great one.  It covers a lot of ground and really makes you feel as if you were on set that day.

The set includes both a DVD and a Blu-Ray, and is also viewable in Disney Second Screen.  This is a feature where you can sync the film up with your computer, IPad, etc. and watch the extras in conjunction with the film.  A lot of the material does bleed over from second screen to the isolated extras, but it is set up as a journal in which you can explore at your own pace.  There is a lot of great material and it’s a really neat feature.

I know the film was designed as a franchise, and there is so much negativity right now, I don’t know if we’re going to get the planned follow-ups.  I truly hope that the film is discovered on Blu-Ray/DVD as the fantastic science-fiction fantasy that it is.  Just in terms of sheer spectacle, you can’t go wrong.  This is a movie that deserves to be discovered and enjoyed again and again.  Hopefully, if enough people support the film, someday we’ll get to back and revisit the endlessly fascinating world of Barsoom.

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