As you probably know, John Carter is the story of a Civil War veteran who, through a mysterious cave, winds up on Mars, which they call Barsoom. There, he becomes a warrior fought over by various tribes and winds up saving the planet from their own civil war. Two hours twelve minutes is a lot of adventure, but I’d heard good things.
I have to say, I’m not a convert, but I’m very glad I got a chance to check out this special edition, mainly for the extras (see section below). The effects are gorgeous, particularly on Blu-ray, but the prologue didn’t start me off right. It sounds like the back of any random fantasy paperback read — full of odd-sounding names and mentions of battles between various tribes. If I was in a theater, I’d have nothing else to focus on, but at home, I kept thinking of other things I could be doing. However, those books and that genre have lots of fans, and I imagine they’d enjoy seeing this take on larger-than-life battles and flying fighters. They all seem very real when seen here.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is more believable to me as a warrior on an alien planet than a 19th-century veteran and scrapper, as we’re introduced to him. That his nephew is Edgar Rice Burroughs feels even more artificial. Maybe it’s just that Civil War-era flashbacks don’t work for me, since I live in a place where too many people are still obsessed with that time period. (The time period and a dead wife reminded me a bit of Jonah Hex, but if I start citing similarities and references, we’d be here all day.) The period scenes looked authentic, although I did feel that too much time was spent on the visuals, simply establishing the setting and background. The film looks wonderful, but it could have been tightened, a feeling I would come back to.
The movie’s jumpy, with alternate worlds and flashbacks based on a journal. It demands to be watched, not listened to, since so much of its content is visual, conveying information and telling the story through images, not dialogue. The creatures are most impressive. It’s easy to forget how artificial they all are, since they interact so well with the humans, creating a world to get lost in for a couple of hours.
Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch in John Carter
As predicted, I liked the princess Dejah, her combination of energy and knowledge and fearlessness, although I wasn’t so fond of the “forced to be married off to a bad guy” plotline. I’d seen it so many times before, which is the problem with watching this movie now. Back in its day, 100 years ago, the concepts were more original. Now, so many films and stories have borrowed from it, knowingly or not, that it seems like just another copy of itself. Carter’s amazing ability to leap great distances, for example, feels old-fashioned, a throwback to the days when that was one of Superman’s great powers. Plus, those scenes show off how much Mars looks like the American Southwestern desert.
A few last thoughts: If I’d have paid more attention, maybe I’d have better understood the secret plot created by Matai Shang (Mark Strong). His motivations seemed rather bad-guy arbitrary, messing with people’s lives because he could.
I liked the humor of Dejah’s assistant Kantos Kan (James Purefoy). More of that light-hearted touch would have been appreciated.
Helium is a silly name for a city.
The city of Helium in John Carter
Overall, as a love story, John Carter isn’t bad; as a fantasy adventure, it’s visually exciting; as a science-fiction war, it’s got too much going on. Which makes it a good choice for home video, since multiple watchings will make the players clearer.
Here’s my favorite clip, where John Carter and Dejah Thoris first meet, when he rescues her:
Special Features and Extras
The movie is also available as a four-disc 3-D Blu-ray with digital copy or a plain DVD. The DVD has two bonus features: the audio commentary by director Andrew Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins (both of whom worked with Stanton on WALL-E) and one featurette, “100 Years in the Making” (11 minutes).
Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, with Tharks
That’s supposedly about how Burroughs’ novel came to be a movie, but it’s also about Stanton and how he loved the story. The voiceover in Burroughs’ words is cheesy, but pointing out how little he respected what he was doing is funny. (He had contempt for pulps, as many people still do for these kinds of stories, as well as Hollywood.) Jon Favreau and Michael Chabon participate as well. Favreau was supposed to direct when Paramount had the rights, but they let them lapse, while Chabon worked on the movie script.
The Blu-ray includes both of the above along with these additional bonuses:
- The ability to run the movie with the Disney Second Screen app on your laptop or iPad. I was eager to check that out, but it wasn’t available prior to official release date, so that will have to wait for later.
- A short clip of Andrew Stanton explaining Second Screen, as shown here:
- Ten deleted scenes that can be played with or without Stanton’s commentary (19 minutes total). I didn’t feel a need for more from this world, but I did appreciate seeing how they filmed some of the shots that depended on later enhancement. Watching the Tharks on stilts or shots before the animation was layered on top was insightful.
- “360 Degrees of John Carter” (34 1/2 minutes) shows an entire day of production while filming a battle scene: costumes, catering, crew management, makeup (important when half your characters wear lots of tattoos), sets, effects, stunts, all the various management that goes into a spectacular of this scope. It’s fascinating in showing how the production is almost a town in itself. I thought I wouldn’t be interested, but it’s got a lot of the behind-the-scenes information I enjoyed learning. Some of this is apparently included in the Second Screen app as well.
- Barsoom Bloopers (2 minutes) — people falling down, getting trapped in their costumes, and dancing.
If you like the movie, or think you’ll like the movie, you should definitely check out this set, because you’ll love the extra information on how the movie came together. I enjoyed it more than the film itself, because it’s an essential portrait of how giant-size movies are made these days. (The studio provided a review copy.)