So ‘John Carter’ has arrived on Blu-Ray. You’ll be forgiven for not having noticed since Disney has turned its corporate back on the film and released it with as little fanfare as they could muster. Well, if they aren’t bothered … Why should you be? Well, because the film is a lot better than its dismal theatrical performance would suggest. I genuinely feel that this is a film which will generate a lot of fan discussion and fiction, will be the focus of a lot of fan affection and will become the subject of much cosplay at conventions. If you’d like to see just how little the girls at science-fiction conventions will be wearing next year, you’d best check it out. It’s available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and, if you really want Lynn Collins’ boobs poking your eyes out: 3D Blu-Ray.
I love this film. I’m fully aware of its faults, but I love it anyway. I’d still love to see the version Andrew Stanton had in mind before Disney got cold feet and started interfering … And maybe, if the fan demand is sufficient, we might get that. It took twenty years with ‘Apocalypse Now’ and thirty with ‘Blade Runner’, but we eventually got the definitive versions of those films. I’m patient.
The problems with this film began with the adaptation. Unfortunately, they have too freely adapted the novel in some ways, and stuck too closely to it in others. The early chapters, detailing the Wild West exploits of John Carter were necessary in the novel, written one hundred years ago when readers of pulp fiction expected to read the exploits of cowboys. Nowadays: Not so much.
This means that, since Disney helpfully removed the ‘Of Mars’ from the title … One could watch the first ten minutes of the film and think that one had accidentally wandered into a Clint Eastwood movie. These scenes, establishing a mystery surrounding the elusive and now missing-presumed-dead John Carter, then swooping back through a series of flash-backs, are perfectly fine, and would have made a nice addition here on the BD as part of the ‘Director’s Cut’, adding detail and character for the benefit of those viewers who are already fans of the film. But they were included in the theatrical version, and they are an amusing diversion, but a diversion none-the-less.
Once Carter arrives on Mars, the steam-punk-ish flying greenhouses, the facial tattoos, the battle-harnesses-instead-of-clothes and, of course, the tall, lean, bug-eyed Tharks are all bang-on. Exactly as I imagined they would be, 35 years ago when I was voraciously reading the books.
Sadly, even though we are finally on Mars, once again the story stutters and stalls as we have to be introduced to a whole new cast of characters. Ordinarily, I would have been bored by a film that takes so long to get its plot underway but, here, everything is done so well, the visuals are so beautiful and the feel of the piece is just so magical that I had to forgive it. Had to.
The tribal Thark people are presented very much as I remember them in the book, noble and savage, and the Performance-Capture animation featuring Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton is faultless. Their simple, primitive existence stands in stark contrast to the opulent techno-cities of the humanoid Martians – played by British character actors to a man! Here, politics and power-playing is to the fore. As a political move, Princess Deja Thoris is to be married off to Jeddak Sab Than, in order to protect her city of Helium from falling prey to his city of Zodanga. However, inevitable comparisons notwithstanding, she is no passive Dale Arden waiting to be rescued. Instead she takes her fate in her own hands several times, leading her own mini-rebellion and expertly wielding her sword. In this respect, she is much more the template for Princess Leia!
John’s self-destructive nature adds a psychological depth to his character that a lot of action heroes lack. Meanwhile, Deja’s fighting skills and scientific knowledge make her an unusually enlightened female lead (certainly more-so than in the original novel).
Something else they have added to the novel is humour. Not a trace of self-mockery or irony will you find in a Burroughs book, but, of course, in the fag-end of Post-Modernism, we need to have our pastiches be laced with humour. The humour elevates a camp fantasy conceit and makes it palatable for a modern audience. Stanton is a master of that and you can see his Pixar credentials in his handling of the Woola character – who is the endearing frog-dog pet and is simply delightful! There is also a very brave comedy red herring in the thirds act which is as hilarious as it is ridiculous!
The movie’s big name stars are identifiable only by voice, leaving all the weight on Kitsch’s shoulders and, unfortunately, he isn’t charismatic enough to carry a film on his own, which is what he is required to do. He’s perfectly pleasant when he needs to be and dark and moody when he needs to be but, for me, he lacks that spark of likeability that instantly made Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler and Chris Hemsworth stars in similar circumstances.
Yet, despite all this criticism, I still feel that the magic of the film comes through. There was an innocence to Burroughs’ work and the spirit that almost childish vision of Mars is captured. The details may be wrong, the film may be compromised, but the magical feel of the books is there, perfectly captured.
The magic of the Harry Potter books and films always seemed hollow and apologetic and faintly embarrassing to me, but not so this magic. This is simple, direct story-telling featuring exactly that kind of unshackled imagination that creates iconic fictions which pass down through generations, inspiring fans, copyists and adapters for decades on end.
I watched the 2D version. I presume the specs will be the same on the 3D version, to wit: The image is a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. There is the range of colours one would expect to see and the blacks are deep and clear (which is usually the test of picture quality) but, despite all that, the image isn’t as sharp as my HD telly has led me to expect. It’s not fuzzy, but … slightly soft. I’m forced to conclude that this is just another benefit of Hollywood’s sad, slavish addiction to 3D, which – in this writers not-even-remotely-humble-opinion – adds nothing to the theatrical experience and clearly takes away from the domestic one – even in its 2D iteration. Thanks 3D. The gimmick that keeps on giving.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, on the other hand, is little short of brilliant. On a film like this, with monsters and death-rays and aircraft flying around, I want the soundtrack to be wide and rich and detailed with loads of separation, and I got it. The sound-scape dropped me right into the middle of the action, with airships swooping past your head, making me one happy Earthling.
Audio Commentary — Interesting that the actors aren’t involved in this commentary, nor are the special effects people, nor the writers. All we get is Director Andrew Stanton and a couple of Producers. That said, they are all very knowledgeable about and passionate for the film they spent the best part of five years creating. It isn’t one of those ‘oh, he’s lovely … oh, she’s lovely’ type commentaries … Indeed, they pretty much ignore their film while it is running, talking about the experience of making it in general terms and every now and then using the scene on screen to inspire them to ramble off on another interesting and amusing anecdote. It’s a very relaxed and friendly commentary and I like that!
Deleted Scenes – 19 mins — With optional director’s commentary. These scenes include a different intro sequence, which encourages the viewer to take Deja more seriously. There is also some extra tom-foolery with Woola. I always wonder whether these scenes would be better finished off and put in the film and, in this case, some of them, I feel, would, while others add little.
100 Years in the Making – 11 mins — A rapid but informative over-view of the life of ERB ( Edgar Rice Burroughs) whose first published work was A Princess of Mars a book which he cheerfully confessed he wrote purely for the money. It is interesting who they manage to get as talking heads for this doc, including Jon Favreau whose own attempt to make the film (with Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles producing, if memory serves) ultimately floundered, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who worked on the script of this version.
360 Degrees of John Carter – 35 mins — This is a ‘Day in the Life of’ type making-of, not dissimilar to those excellent ‘Doctor Who Confidentials’ the BBC used to treat us to. That’s a comparison possibly encouraged by the fact that the interiors were shot here in England, with hundreds of chirpy Brit extras milling about. It begins with people striking the lights just after five in the morning then follows the day of the extras, the make-up artists, the assistant directors etc through their day as they move forward the behemoth of a massive Hollywood movie.
Barsoom Bloopers – 2 mins — A short montage of people dancing in large green rooms or tripping up lots. Which is nice.
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