Director Andrew Stanton’s vision of Mars, known to the beings living there as Barsoom, is a barren and beautiful place, as architectural in some stretches as it is empty in others. Despite the endless dry and uncomfortably red space, Stanton’s vision for his ambitious $250 million production is not wholly unpleasant. For those who have an eye for detail, the airy glass and shiny brass makeup of the world should be intensely satisfying. Unfortunately, the world-building and the storyline do not always complement well.
Barsoom is the place audiences most want to be in John Carter, but it takes a while to get there. Before hooking up with a crystal amulet that conveniently makes a copy of our hero on the Red Planet, Taylor Kitsch’s Carter must prove how much of a jackass anti-hero he can be, talking his way into barroom brawls in the 1800s and fighting to break free when dealing with cowboy lawmakers. It’s pretty slow going and audiences have to assume the story is going to become more interesting once Carter makes it into space.
It is both true and inaccurate to assume John Carter will ever pick up the pace. The flick is extremely action-oriented, and audiences be wowed by shots of bodies slinging and swords swinging, if that is their thing. The problem is with the momentum of the storytelling, which dithers around and about, always tangoing with making a point, but never quite getting there.
You know all of those scenes in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo and his brave companions are wandering across plains or over mountains, fording streams and mucking through bad weather? LOTR fans deal with these things because they realize there is an ultimate destination. Eventually, Frodo will get to Mordor and destroy the One Ring. In John Carter, our hero just wants to get the girl and maybe nab an extra amulet for safekeeping along the way. The stakes never seem particularly high, and what’s worse, there’s no clearly defined trail or set of tasks to accomplish.
When Carter meets Dejah (Lynn Collins), who has both a sprightly fighting stance and a dominant brain, he’s immediately smitten. Despite feigning reluctance to help her for several more scenes in the movie, it’s immediately apparent he has a soft spot for women, which is proven when Stanton chooses to toss in random cut-to shots from the 1800s showing Carter with his former wife, which are useful to understanding Carter’s character but make an already indecisive movie hop around further. Dejah needs Carter’s newly acquired fighting skills to save her city, Helium, from the impending threat of another city, Zodanga, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), who has actually been bought and paid for by mysterious beings known as the Shang. Additionally, Carter reluctantly chooses to help the tusked, green Tharks also occupying the planet with some of their ongoing leadership problems.
Stanton does a really great job of making all of these convoluted plots understandable, but because he chooses to keep the tangled bulk of the story, the audience often finds Carter moving one step forward in his journey and then backtracking to earlier locales to clean up mistakes and fix additional problems. It is a great opportunity to view the Martian landscape and see its beauty in a way we never get with science fiction flicks like Total Recall, but it is hard to invest in the characters and, more specifically, the path our hero has chosen.
There’s a lot to appreciate about John Carter and its blue-blooded aliens. The scope is massive, and the $250 million was well spent on a vision of a planet that is as exotic as it is desolate. All of the little details paint a picture that is perhaps not quite as agreeable as recent onscreen destinations such as Avatar’s Pandora, but which is almost more haunting in its expansiveness. Despite rock stars like novelist Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and Stanton (Wall-E, Toy Story) on board for the writing process, it is the story that falters. John Carter is a movie worth seeing, but like its reluctant and often spontaneous anti-hero, it is not a movie worth expecting too much out of, or keeping too close to your heart.
The disc is beautiful. There are plenty of ways to peruse the menu and film without having to deal with watching the same previews over and over. The picture quality is among the best I have encountered with my Blu-Ray player, and even the way the menu screen is lit is impressive.
Stanton shows up all over the extras and talks about how much of a fan he is of the source material. The first extra allows you to explore John Carter’s journal; however, there is a big hassle with downloading all of the pertinent stuff to ensure your Disney Second Screen app is working. You can set it up to work with your smart phone or your computer, so if that is your thing, downloading it won’t be too much of a big deal.
One of the most important features on the disc is “100 Years in the Making,” a lengthy and extensive featurette that looks into the history of the John Carter stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s always better when there is a historical perspective on an event or story to delve into, and this extra does not disappoint.
The deleted scenes are actually pretty interesting with the commentary on, especially since there are plenty of areas where you could see Stanton wanted to flesh out his characters and their relationships further. The deleted scenes also go a long way to explain Stanton’s feelings for the project and how devoted he was to seeing the picture come to life. Indeed, nearly every aspect of the creation of this movie was intense. The segment discusses two years of pre-production in "360 Degrees of John Carter," before taking audiences backstage to a specific day of shooting on set. Assistants, actors, and Stanton himself all appear onscreen to go through the rigmarole of makeup, setup, and the lengthy waiting games between scenes. I’ve never seen such an extensive behind-the-scenes look at a day on set, and the one offered is fascinating.
The bloopers are pretty great. Taylor Kitsch comes off as lively and fun in this set of outtakes, and it’s a shame this didn’t come across more onscreen. Audio commentary with Stanton along with producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins rounds out the extras on the disc. Overall, Disney almost never disappoints with disc sets, but the John Carter set is one of the most fun and most professionally put-together I have seen. If you enjoyed John Carter, the Blu-Ray combo pack is a must-have purchase.