John Carter was originally planned for a film production in 1931. The film world would probably be a different place had that happened. As visionary as life on the world of Mars can be, even a tenth of what was created by Disney here in 2012 would have been a marvel. King Kong’s 1933 debut may not have been met with such reverence if audiences soaked up a reasonable John Carter two years prior.
But, that 1931 edition never happened, nor did the ’80s or ’90s adaptation that took a trip through named Hollywood directors who felt increasingly dissatisfied. If anything, time killed John Carter, a film which now feels like deadened science fiction, films plucking pieces from this source material for decades. To a modern audience, Carter is undoubtedly passe, and they voted by not opening their wallets.
Is that the only reason for this publicized, maligned financial failure? Of course not. Modern visual effects have crafted an intricate world realized to its full potential in terms of design, but at the same time is also tiresome. Just a few years after people were enlightened by blue planetary people in Avatar, they rejected green space men. Word of mouth, based around the droopy pacing and one-dimensional lead who turns himself around to become the savior, certainly wouldn’t have been positive either.
John Carter isn’t a bad movie so much as it is a jittery one. For a three-way planetary civil war, Carter concerns itself with the mundane, and shoves in parables along with a half dozen endings. Someone had the power to chop this down, and for once, the executives were probably going to be right with their intrusion.
For all the work spent in production design to craft enormous physical objects and sets to house them (and ridiculous man hours spent honing CG’s finest), there’s little sense this is Mars, or rather Basoom as native language goes. Sprawling Utah locations can only house so much, those expensive panoramas nothing if you’re only plopping a building or two in the backdrop. It still looks like Utah.
Despite those glaring and oft interest-crushing problems, Carter has an eye for lush, extravagant action. It’s a reverse Superman if you will, here an Earthling is transported to another planet to work some heroism. That includes mauling an entire horde of Basoom locales in piling cartoon fashion, wiping out two blind apes, and smashing a few colorful flying ships. Those sequences feel enormous, because suddenly, it’s not Utah. The fiction lives on screen and the audience can enjoy some goopy popcorn fun without feeling embarrassed.
Between it all is a romance barely worth caring for, short of the skimpy dresses pasted on Lynn Collins (to give the other half of the audience something to work with beyond a shirtless Taylor Kitsch). Market dynamics require it one can suppose, while the princess material is infinitely played out in science fiction. See, we’re back to the time period and the window John Carter missed by a few decades. That had to be it. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Movie]
John Carter’s visual beginnings do not bring with them positive signs. The image, especially as Carter first lands on Mars under a vicious contrast, is particularly edgy. Something doesn’t register quite right, and up until the film settles into a groove, it will carry that quality. Sequences of the 1880’s are generally saved by the grim weather and overcast as to not make such an issue readily apparent, but it’s there.
Eventually, Carter begins to look like the outrageously non-cost effective flick that it is, boasting about a deep dimensionality and striking hard with immense texture. If one doesn’t believe the visual effects took a no expense spared approach, a single close-up of the native creatures is enough to disprove those thoughts. Skin texture is enormous to give these desert-like beings a hardened, baked facade. Humans? Not as baked, but certainly sweaty, and colorful facial markings to represent home cities are dominating, if not enough to smooth out typical facial features.
With the exception of the downtrodden 1880 Virginia, Carter is a powerfully colorful feature, with exceptionally bright primaries that separate the warring factions. The traditional red vs blue battle is primed for highlighting ship designs and exquisite clothing choices, saturation doubling up with the texture to create a full bodied video stamp.
Glossy film stock leaves only a small mark on the finished product, relegated to backgrounds mostly which the encode will sop up like a sponge. You’ll find few instances (if any dependent how closely you scrutinize) of noise or distracting compression. A high bitrate encode doesn’t seem to struggle at all, impressive when you consider the rich, deep views of packed arenas filled with moving digital bodies.
Black levels maintain dense nighttime sequences without any bother. They are the key to giving Carter such a pure dimensionality. Even the now and then focal softness which will crimp the detail’s style is not enough to damper this one too fiercely. There’s a lot of material to take in and an astonishing amount of work to appreciate.
On the 3D level, Carter stays unimpressive. For those opening scenes in the 1880s, you will be hard pressed to see any depth. The 3D sort of is and nothing else. Even onto the planet, the disc suffers from lackluster dimension, actors appearing flattened against the special effects. A few of the brightest moments occur during a slow sequence down river in a canyon where the aerials sell the scale and scope. The rest is just blah.
This is one you root for. The film ignites quickly with an aerial battle, and even as ships swoop in towards the virtual lens you will still be waiting for a dramatic effect. Carter tries hard during an arena battle as the character leaps over white apes and directly towards the camera. Even that feels a little off despite some depth presence. Occasional pokes at the camera with swords pop up here and there, while focus dims the full impact. What a downer. [xrr rating=4/5 label=2D-Video] [xrr rating=3/5 label=3D-Video]
In some ways, this DTS-HD mix is a little bit of a disappointment. In the same thinking as the movie, Mars doesn’t sound any different than Earth. There are no weird sounding winds or weather to differentiate one planet from the next. The rain effect on Earth is more identifying than anything atmospheric on Mars, although the planet isn’t red either, so take that for what it is.
Carter waits and sends out a punch when it sees an opening. Explosions and guns are gnarly in how they fill and surround. The level of LFE feels proper for the scale of the action on screen, from ships colliding to creatures stomping around in the arena. At times, it’s brute force, other times it holds back to better suit the visuals.
Surrounds are never lost in the flurry, mixed with a dazzling array of accurate placement while spreading wide if gunfire necessitates it. Note that guns here are more of the poppy variety, not powerful shots of energy. It’s one of the few things that feels different from our world. The crowd inside an arena is a dazzler, the audio quaint before ripping open as the characters enter. Ships pan accurately as the scene demands, traveling in any direction with precision.
Still, a little Mars would be great. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]
Director Andrew Stanton joins producers Jim Morris and Lindsay Collins for a commentary track, the first of many well produced features on this disc. 100 Years in the Making is a look back at the origins of the story and Edgar Rice Burroughs attempts to detach himself from it. Ten deleted scenes comes in various forms of completion, and offer an introduction from Stanton.
Barsoom Bloopers is a short reel on set goofiness, followed by the interesting 360 Degrees of John Carter. This half hour spot details all aspects of the production, from the mundane like food service and extras checking in to the final pieces after a day of shooting. It’s excellent. Second Screen users should know this disc supports that feature, while offering a handful of trailers to round itself off. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Extras]
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