Follow us on

Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: John Carter

June 14th, 2012

John Carter - Buy from Amazon: DVD, Blu-ray, or 3D Blu-ray

John Carter will go down in history as one of the biggest box office flops of all time. It is one of the most expensive movies to make, yet it has the lowest domestic box office numbers for a film that cost $200 million or more to make. (That's only counting films that we have reasonable production budget numbers for. There is a chance a studio would low-ball production budget numbers for a film that bombed.) It may end up losing more money than any other film previously made. But is it really that bad? Or did the film deserve to find a much, much larger audience?

The Movie

The film begins with a prologue telling us that there's life on Mars, and not just life, but highly developed life. The people of Barsoom (their name for Mars) have been stuck in a war between the cities of Zodanga and Helium that has lasted for a thousand years. One day, the leader of Zodanga, Sab Than, was blessed by the Goddess with a weapon that would change the course of the war.

We then meet John Carter, as he walks through a crowded New York City street in 1881. He's being followed by someone, but loses them long enough to send off a telegram to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, telling him to come immediately. Edgar does, but by the time he gets to New York, John Carter is dead. Edgar does inherit all of John's estate, including his journal of his adventures. When Edgar begins to read the journal, we flash back 13 years to where John Carter's tale began.

13 years ago, John Carter was a prospector / treasure hunter in the Arizona territory. He was convinced there was a cave of gold guarded by an evil spider. It's not surprising he was treated with skepticism. He has proof that he's close, but he's "drafted" by Colonel Powell into the Calvary to fight the war against the Apaches. However, John's done with war after the death of his family. His third escape attempt gets him free of prison, with Powell and the rest of the 7th Calvary chasing him. His escape plan ends when he runs into some Apaches and now Carter and Powell are running for their lives from them. John Carter spots a potential hiding place, a small cave, and when the Apaches find them, they back away from the cave out of fear. When John Carter tries to figure out why, he sees a sun carved into the top of the cave. It sort of looks like a spider. Deeper inside the cave, he finds a lot of gold. He also runs into one of the Goddesses men and accidentally winds up on Barsoom.

While John Carter is trying to find his Martian legs (the low gravity allows him to jump great distances, but even walking while maintaining his balance presents a challenge) he is captured by the Tharks and their King, Tars Tarkas, who witnesses one of his jumps and thinks he would make a great weapon. We also see more of the war between Zodanga and Helium. With his new weapon, Sab Than has been able to destroy nearly all of Helium's forces and is threatening to destroy all of the city, but will spare it if the princess, Dejah Thoris, will marry him. She's appalled by the idea and wants to fight on, but her father, Tardos Mors, has agreed to the arrangement. Before the wedding can begin, Dejah escapes in one of their airships and Sab gives chase and catches up to her above the Tharks' village. When Carter sees her, he thinks she is a human and jumps to rescue her.

John Carter is now mixed up in the war on Mars, and while he really doesn't want to get involved, Dejah might be the only one who can get him home.

Disney admitted to a $200 million loss on this film. That's an incredible sum of money. That's about three times more than the average movie costs to make. However, that's only half the film's combined budget. This is a movie that was made to become a franchise. It certainly has an epic feel to it and the much of that $300 million production budget made its way onscreen. It looks absolutely amazing, aside from a few special effects shots that looked out of place. There are great action scenes, massive armies battling for the control of the city. The special effects are often stunning, both on the large scale, as well as the characters created, like the four-armed Tharks or the strange dog-like Woola. There are some non-technical reasons to enjoy the movie. There are several great performances in the film. Lynn Collins is arguably the best playing the princess in a way that's not typical of the damsel in distress. Additionally, Mark Strong is excellent as... well, the guy whose character I can't describe without getting into spoiler territory. There's a sense of grandeur to the film, but also a sense of humor that helps the film's pace. I especially like when John Carter leads the army of Tharks to attack the bad guys, only to lead them to the wrong city. Him getting smacked on the back of the head was a good touch.

Unfortunately, there are also some reasons to dislike the movie, some fair, others not. Some have complained that a lot of the story elements seemed borrowed, and they are. However, this is because a lot of films have borrowed from this story over the years. (The first of the novels this film is based on were written in 1912.) I understand this complaint and while it is not exactly fair, it is valid to a degree. A story that was groundbreaking 100 years ago might be commonplace today. Also, the story itself is rather simplistic, but also unnecessarily complicated. It's the story of two peoples going to war and an outsider getting involved. However, we are dropped into the middle of the conflict with just a short prologue to explain what's going on. This does mean we have the same sense of wonder as John Carter does, but it doesn't work, because John Carter is, sadly, not a compelling character. Even the flashbacks to his dead wife and child don't give his character enough depth to carry the movie.

I don't want to be too harsh. John Carter is worth checking out, it is certainly better than its box office performance or its trailers would indicate. I do think bad marketing hurt the film's chances at the box office. However, there are too many flaws and under the best of circumstances, it would have been tough to turn into a franchise. Given its production budget, it would have been impossible even if the film had had a better release date and marketing that sold the film's strengths better.

The Extras

The extras on the DVD start with an audio commentary track with the director, Andrew Stanton; one of the producers, Jim Morris; and one of the leads, Lindsey Collins. It has good energy and lots of information is presented, so it is worth checking out. The only other extra is an 11-minute featurette called 100 Years in the Making, which is about Edgar Rice Burroughs' career.

The Blu-ray has a 35-minute long making of featurette called 360 Degrees of John Carter. There are 19 minutes of deleted scenes that include an optional introduction and optional audio commentary track by Andrew Stanton. Next up are some outtakes. Finally, there's Second Screen, which gives you more information on your tablet or smart phone while watching the movie. Unfortunately, I have neither.

The technical presentation is excellent. The video is fantastic with strong details, stellar colors, deep blacks. It's not quite up to the level of some other first-run releases of this type, but being just shy of reference level material is hardly an insult. The audio is even better than the video with clear dialogue, plenty of activity in the surround sound speakers, including directional effects and a very solid base. It is potentially reference level materiel.

As for the 3D effects... yes, I have made the leap to 3D, sort of. I tried to order a 3D TV online from the United States. I couldn't do it on the site, because the form wouldn't allow me to enter a Canadian shipping address, nor would it allow me to have a separate billing and mailing address. I tried by phone and it seemed to work, but a week later the order was canceled, because they couldn't ship to Canada. I tried again to ship to the United States and it wouldn't work, because my credit card company had the wrong zip code for my alternate American address. I finally got it done through, only to have my credit card frozen, because I tried to buy seven TVs in roughly one week, which looked suspicious. (It turns out, each failed attempt was still going through as a "pending" charge.) To make a long story short, which is practically impossible at this point, the 3D TV should arrive within 10 days and I'll review the 3D component of the film then. In my defense, originally I did order the TV well enough in advance to get it on time, barely, so this mess isn't entirely my fault. I probably shouldn't have asked for the 3D screener till the TV was in my possession. I hope to get 3D Blu-rays on a semi-regular basis from now on.

The Verdict

John Carter is a good movie, but not a great movie. The world looks fantastic and a number of the characters are compelling. However, we are dropped in the middle of things without enough reason to care about the main character till too far into the movie. I would rate the DVD is a solid rental, while if you are looking to buy, the Blu-ray is the way to go. On a pure dollar basis, it only cost $2 more to make the leap to 3D Blu-ray, but I won't know if that is truly worth it till my 3D TV arrives.

- Submitted by:

Filed under: Video Review, John Carter