*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe
screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
directed by Andrew Stanton
by Walter Chaw Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote grand, incendiary pulp. He in fact defined pulp for me as a kid, not so much with his Tarzan, but with his Barsoom. I remember the Gino D'Achille covers for the Ballantine run of the books, all eleven of them, and I remember how excited I felt once I finally completed my collection of them at a mildew-smelling (delicious) used bookstore that didn't know what it had. It's easy to forget the thrill of those discoveries in the pre-Internet bazaar. When I was on the fence about buying a Kindle last Christmas, I saw that Burroughs's complete run of Barsoom (i.e., John Carter of Mars) novels was available for free; now I own a Kindle. Rereading the series this past year in preparation for Andrew Stanton's John Carter, I was reminded of the scope of Burroughs's work--its sociology, its uncompromising stance on religion, its unabashed chivalry and romance; when I read Sir Walter Scott years later, it couldn't hold a candle to Burroughs. Barsoom was my gateway to works by Burroughs contemporaries H.P. Lovecraft (compare what Carter finds at the gate of the River Iss with the arctic nightmare of At the Mountains of Madness and tell me they didn't influence one another) and Robert E. Howard, but at the end of it all was always, for me, Barsoom. I've been waiting for a big-budget, prestige presentation of this property for almost as long as I waited for the Star Wars prequels--and if I'm not as disappointed, it's only because Episode I killed much of what was disappointable in me. John Carter is garbage.
Not good garbage, either: John Carter is mopey and ruined by backstory and modern sensibilities. What should be full-throated and choked with Old Southern testosterone is smothered beneath sulky smarm'ing and the same sad-bastard flashback motivation as any dozen identically-useless pomo heroes. That John Carter reminds a great deal of Jonah Hex says too much. John Carter also reminds of David Lynch's Dune and, now and again, The Chronicles of Riddick--both films I like, neither of which makes any kind of sense outside its very particular context. I hate this movie, I really do. I hate that the six-armed, green, nomadic Tharks call Carter "Virginia" for cheap, emasculating yuks. I hate that Carter is played by frickin' Taylor Kitsch (better Taylor "Shtick," though I guess "Kitsch" works fine), who can't play a Confederate gentleman any more than Glenn Close could play an English butler, and I don't like that Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is suddenly a scientist and I think a middle linebacker. I abhor a framing story that inserts Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) as a young, aspiring writer who inherits uncle John's journal; and I resent the movie's representation of holy fakers the Thurn--led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong)--as omniscient idiots à la The Adjustment Bureau. It's not just that John Carter deviates from Burroughs, not just that its hero is a simpering little shit without a chivalrous bone in his effete body (who needs to be coaxed into courting the princess), or that the Woola beast is distilled into another adorable Disney sidekick, or even that the Thark are reduced to ooga-booga natives. It's that John Carter is boring and almost entirely without a spark discernable anywhere in the meat of its health-club glow.
I have no idea what this movie is like for someone unfamiliar with Burroughs's Barsoom books, why pretend, but I do have an idea that even if John Carter were not the Barsoom I know, I would've enjoyed it anyway had it not sucked. There are two nice moments, maybe three: one takes place early on, when Carter learns that he's superhuman in the Martian low-G; the second involves the discovery of a hatchery; and the possible third has Carter taking on a horde of baddies and building a foxhole of their corpses. The rest of it is lots of talking and walking. In place of cliffhangers and sudden betrayals, John Carter offers political blather and xeno-babble--come to think of it, all that's missing is a senate debate and a pod race. I hate when Carter's honorarium "Dotar Sojat" is translated as Jeddak Tars Tarkas's (Willem Dafoe) "right arm" (another term for "bitch" after spending the first part of the film being called a virgin queen) instead of "the surnames of the two warrior chieftains whose metal I had taken." I hate, in other words, the reconfiguration of this quintessential hero into Ashton Kutcher in a loin cloth. The worst, however, is when noble nurse Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton, who's completely squandered) embarks on a life-ending pilgrimage to discover not that her religion has been a lie (as it is in the novels), but that Carter's intergalactic doohickey is the MacGuffin supreme in a script that feels like it needs to explain everything in as granular and unimaginative a way as possible. It's a movie for simpletons and those of delicate constitution, a weak story for a weak time--it's no wonder, really, that it's a Disney film. The greater tragedy is the involvement of talents like Stanton and Michael Chabon in a project this carefully deboned and filleted, featuring a sensitive, New Age hero who'd be wearing a scrunchie to keep his hair out of his stubbled face at the centre of any cosmology seminar--the Han Solo who shoots back rather than the one who shot first. If you like this bullshit, you know what? You can have it. Originally published: March 9, 2012.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Disney brings John Carter to Blu-ray with conspicuous haste in a 2.40:1, 1080p presentation. Shot on film in anamorphic, this is a handsome, at times pretty, movie elegantly transferred to HiDef. Definition is typical of true 'scope cinematography, which is to say not always razor-sharp; the effects sometimes give themselves away by being comparatively crystalline, though in and of themselves they're extremely persuasive on the small screen. (Maybe it's an issue of blue vs. green, but Avatar's Na'vi look a lot more fake to me than do the Tharks, even at home.) The glassy, slightly gritty image reproduces the Martian landscapes of Monument Valley with characteristic splendour, though it helps that director Andrew Stanton and DP Dan Mindel employ a light touch in the DI--hundreds if not thousands of extras were not bronzed in vain. A trace of banding is not a deal-breaker, but I'm surprised to encounter it in this day and age. The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is similarly top-notch, supporting a detailed mix that's a head-turner in battle scenes and consistently ambient. Still, I somehow expected more from the sound design: more invention (sadly, Stanton's WALL-E collaborator Ben Burtt--the man who figured out what noise a Wookiee makes--did not return for this outing), more killer bass.
Supplementally, the Blu-ray contains a film-length commentary with Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, plus a smattering of video-based content. The yakker's a good one--Stanton's an old hand at this from all the Pixar DVDs, and he coaxes his less-experienced comrades out of their shell. Casting is a big topic, as is, predictably, Stanton's (and Collins's) transition to live-action filmmaking. I like a moment where Stanton touches on a potential to get drunk with power that doesn't exist in animation, as when he speaks of live chickens materializing within fifteen minutes of his impossible request for the same. As the three were obviously recorded prior to John Carter's theatrical bow, its disastrous box-office performance is not discussed. Instead, we get hopeless talk of trilogies and multi-picture deals, contributing to a pervasive feeling of melancholy that continues through the featurettes "100 Years in the Making" (10 mins., HD) and "360 Degrees of John Carter" (35 mins., HD)--what with their respective emphases on the long, vain struggle to realize the project and John Carter's expensive, labour-intensive shoot. "100 Years" includes priceless, far-too-brief test footage of animator Bob Clampett's run at the property (think the Fleischer Brothers meets Ralph Bakshi) and interviews with the likes of Jon Favreau, who almost directed the film for Paramount before moving on to Iron Man. A corny Edgar Rice Burroughs sound-alike "narrates" the piece. "360 Degrees", meanwhile, documents a day on set from sunrise to sunset, a huge chunk of which consists of Lynn Collins getting her hair and makeup done. We see Stanton presiding over a greenscreen extravaganza of fighting Barsoomians in his Richie Cunningham way but mostly, on this amusingly John Carter-less day (Taylor Kitsch, we're told, is sitting in a trailer somewhere, in case he's needed), deferring to F/X supervisor Peter Chiang and a team of stunt coordinators. The outrageous scale of the production is repeatedly asserted but less evident from the spartan London soundstage than from the lavish buffets laid out for cast and crew.
A 20-minute block of ten Deleted Scenes, complete with optional Stanton intro and commentary, betray the Pixar influence in substituting missing elements with thumbnail sketches or crude animation. Of note is a more elaborate introduction to "Ned" establishing him as a med-school student, something Stanton, in another unbearably ironic sentiment, thinks might come in handy "down the line." "Barsoom Bloopers" (2 mins., HD) shows that Disney money being put to good use on an impromptu dance number that Stanton starts by programming the illuminated cave floor to light up like the "Billie Jean" video; much moneymaker-shaking ensues. Summing up the John Carter Blu-ray experience, previews for Marvel's The Avengers, Frankenweenie, "Castle", and the studio's BD slate cue up on startup and can be separately accessed under the main menu, while a DVD version joins the Blu-ray inside the keepcase. Also available on Blu-ray 3D, with equally hideous cover art.