Chief Justice Michael Stailey is naming his next dog Woola.
"You are ugly…but you are beautiful!"
When it comes to negative word of mouth in Hollywood, there's no explaining mob mentality. John Carter was snake bit from the word go, and not even a groundswell of love from the Burroughs faithful could save the film from being tarred and feathered by the movie-loving public at large. Even it's release on DVD and Blu-ray is drawing the ire of people irrationally affected by previous bad-mouthing. How does this happen? How does a masterfully assembled, sweeping sci-fi/fantasy epic from a director with an impressive storytelling record, end up being lambasted as "crash-prone as a bad-old-days Microsoft release" (Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune)?!
Facts of the Case
Former Virginia Cavalry Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a lost soul, living off the land in godforsaken 1800s Arizona, in search of a fabled cave of gold. When a group of Union soldiers attempt to forcibly enlist his services in battling the local Native Americans, his rebelliousness sets off a chain of events that drops him in the middle of intergalactic espionage and a Martian civil war. Exiled on the planet Barsoom (Mars' real name), he must adjust to a radically different environment, make friends with indigenous peoples, rescue a princess, defeat the godlike Thern, and justify his very existence to a universe who believes his big screen adventures should never have produced.
Rarely do I use my reviews as a personal soapbox, but I'm having a real problem with the badmouthing John Carter has received. I came to the film with no investment. I had not ready any of the Barsoom novels, had limited exposure to Marvel Comics' late '70s Warlord of Mars series, did not see the Disney 3D IMAX theatrical experience, and had nary a care whether it succeeded or fell flat on its face. In fact, because the Blu-ray player was acting up, my first viewing was on a 24 inch computer monitor in standard definition DVD. And you know what? Despite all the crap people have been heaping on the movie, I loved it. Stop and think for a moment. This is a story drawn from the first of eleven Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that inspired the late Ray Bradbury to write his Martian Chronicles. This is the first live-action film from writer/director Andrew Stanton who has been directly responsible for bringing us films like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Toy Story 3. This is a movie I watched four times in two days—on DVD, Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray with Disney Second Screen, and DVD with commentary—and still loved it, because the experience evokes everything that's great about going to the movies. It saddens me then the world at large has seen fit to taint this picture with the modern scarlet letter of failure, because it is anything but.
Yes, John Carter does have its share of problems, but for those willing to open their minds and give it a shot, the feelings it generates can prove to be exceptional. Set aside the massive budget ($250M+), the marketing failures, the scapegoating of now defrocked Disney Studios chief Rich Ross, and the throng of belligerent critics who love to invent new ways to put down a film, and what you'll discover is an epic throwback to the days of Lawrence of Arabia, when the hero's journey was more than an overwhelming parade of CGI wizardry pumped into our skulls by the likes of Michael Bay and James Cameron. Have our attention spans been shortened so dramatically that we can no longer tolerate the deliberate unfolding of a tale the likes of which dominated '70s cinema?
Yes, the first act is slow moving and exposition heavy, but very much in the same vein as David Lynch's Dune. There are long stretches of sweeping visuals and character interaction, not so different from what you'll find in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are certain story elements (such as the mystery surrounding Carter's wife and daughter, and just who exactly this "Goddess" really is) which could have been told in such a way that made more narrative sense, but sci-fi films like Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth also leave us scratching our heads. What I'm driving at is the genre in which John Carter lives and breathes is loaded with cinematic tropes and pitfalls, so it isn't necessarily surprising to find them here. But what does work in the film far outweighs the investment Stanton and company are asking us to make.
The world of Barsoom, from the physics and landscapes to its technology and lifeforms, is brilliantly conceived and implemented. Unlike the many genre films shot entirely on green screen (e.g. 300), the locations this production team scouted and shot are unlike anything you've ever seen before. And where CGI artistry is employed, it's only in support of the wealth of in-camera work this team meticulously designed and prepared for. The animation of the Thark race is flawless in HD and you can actually make sense of the battle sequences, unlike Transformers. Is there a pervasive sense of the writers laying groundwork for story elements to payoff somewhere down the road? Absolutely, but when you're dealing with a universe and mythology as deep and rich as this, it can't be helped. That could be why so many creative teams tried and failed to bring John Carter to the big screen over the past 80 years. Warner Bros. animation director extraordinaire Bob Clampett couldn't do it in the 1930s. Disney's Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) couldn't do it in the 1980s. Even director Jon Favreau couldn't make it work for Paramount as recently as 2005. So to crucify Andrew Stanton and his team is ludicrous. He should be applauded for his efforts, even if they didn't strike the box office gold many people were expecting. $283M worldwide is not Marvel's The Avengers money, but it ain't exactly chicken scratch either.
Where John Carter suffers the most is in its casting of Taylor Kitsch. Granted, he wowed a lot of people with his run as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, and raised more than a few eyebrows as the Cajun mutant Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but here he's playing a poor imitation of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name who wants to be Indiana Jones set against the backdrop of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (in fact, much of Barsoom will remind you of Tatooine). When asked to give a rousing speech to a stadium full of raging Tharks, covered in the blue blood of a slain White Ape, he comes across as an SNL version of Mel Gibson's William Wallace from Braveheart. And though he gets this put-upon race to rise up against their humanoid oppressors, Carter fails to rally any emotion in the audience watching these events unfold. Kitsch's Wolverine co-star Lynn Collins doesn't fare much better as Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris. Though easy on the eyes, we don't get much more than a two dimensional damsel in distress with a tough exterior. If you listen to the commentary, Stanton—alongside producing partners Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris—talks at great length about the deeper character relationships and story arcs that exist for the residents of feudal Helium and Zodanga, very little of which makes it to screen, making it harder for us to care. In fact, our greatest emotional investment as an audience is found in the animation-over-live-action performances of Willem Dafoe (Spider-man) and Samantha Morton (Synecdoche, New York) as father and daughter Tars Tarkas and Sola. Stanton did use twin cameras on the character rigging to capture their facial expressions for the animators, but seriously credit everyone involved in bringing these creatures to life. The same holds true for Carter's adopted Martian dog Woola, who is hands down my favorite character in the film, rivaled only by yet another brilliantly cold and calculating performance from Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) as Thern high priest Matai Shang.
When push comes to shove, I will defend John Carter as an admirable piece of genre filmmaking, which may be destined for eventual cult status. Hell, for some kids, this may end up being what Raiders of the Lost Ark was to me at age 13, an engrossing immersion in a bold new world. I would love nothing more than to see successive generations recognize the inherent value in the film, and maybe even pick up the torch to further the adventures of this reluctant intergalactic hero. Until then, we wait and see what else this genre has in store for us.
Presented in glorious 2.40:1/1080p high definition widescreen, John Carter (Blu-ray) is yet another release in Disney's long and impressive HD catalog. The detail is magnificent, the color palate astounding, the blacks are deep, and digital tampering is non-existent. Stanton choose to shoot this on film stock in Panavision with all the inherent flaws and defects the process allows, so don't blame the transfer. These blemishes are cinematic badges of honor. If you're looking to be converted to the church of 3D, forget it. We get a sizable uptick in depth to Barsoom's dimensionality and the occasional visual gem, but it's not nearly enough for me to declare any sort of visual advantage. I eagerly await the day when the studios wise up to the fact that their investment in a 1950s gimmick was pointless, and let's hope this weak post-conversion helps bring about that awareness. You can save yourself the trouble by skipping this four-disc 3D package release and go with 3-Disc Blu-ray instead. The audio quality for the DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix goes above and beyond the call of duty, wowing us with every opportunity—horse chases, airship battles, hand-to-hand combat, ambient environments, and Michael Giacchino's sweeping score (which is another significant step forward in his musical repertoire, building off the emotionally impressive work done for JJ Abram's Super 8). Newbie audio producers take note, this is how it's done.
Which brings us to the bonus features. Disney rarely skimps on extras for its major theatrical releases, and though this one comes fully loaded, I found myself wanting more on the history of the character and his literary roots. Don't mistake my disappointment for criticism, for what we do get is valuable…
• Disney Second Screen—In my first experience with this technology, I was suitably impressed. Essentially, it's the picture-in-picture experience extracted from the television and transferred to your portable device (iPad, laptop). Disney delivers a wealth of behind-the-scenes insight (interviews, video, photos), extended/deleted/alternate scenes, conceptual art, narrative changes, text trivia, and more. This is definitely something to partake of in your second or third viewing, but don't even attempt it for your first; it's far too distracting.
• Commentary—Stanton, Collins, and Morris keep the party going with a lively discussion, recorded very early in the film's release. As such, we get absolutely no discussion of John Carter's domestic box office disappointment, and continuous references as to what we can expect from the second and third films. If only…
• John Carter 360 (35 min)—A mini production diary details one full day on the set, as they shoot various aspects of the Cathedral of Light battle in the film's climax. Touching on every aspect of the shoot, this is yet another film junkie's dream come true, peeling back the curtain on the filmmaking process.
• Deleted Scenes (20 min)—Andrew walks us through a parade of ten extractions, some of which were painful personal cuts, none of which radically alter the narrative. The alternate opening sequence is interesting to see, even though it wouldn't have fared any better than the voice over they ultimately went with.
• 100 Years in the Making (11 min)—A brief look at the life of author Edgar Rice Burroughs, the birth of his Martian tales, and the various attempts at bringing them to a larger audience.
• Barsoom Bloopers (2 min)—A pitiful attempt at a gag reel. Do DVD producers really believe this stuff adds value to the consumer?
Is John Carter a setup film to a franchise that may never see the light of day? Perhaps. Does it deserve the ire of so many critics and audiences? Absolutely not. Invest two hours and judge for yourself. I defy you to come back with proof that this is, as some claim, the worst/most boring sci-fi/fantasy film ever made. Ten minutes of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening or any Steve Reeves Hercules movie will blow that theory right out of the water.
"Ak Ohum Oktay Weez Barsoom!"
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