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When I reviewed the theatrical release of 'John Carter' on 'The Bonus View,' I gave it 3.5 stars. I noticed its faults, but couldn't help but love it for the fun story and characters. The only time I saw 'John Carter' was at that one press screening, so diving into the Blu-ray was my first repeat viewing. Truthfully, as much as I liked it the first time, I enjoyed it even more the second – so much so that I bumped my rating of the movie up from three and a half stars stars to four. I still find it to be one of the most thoroughly fun adventure flicks in a very long time.
'John Carter' opens like the "cowboys and aliens" movie that 'Cowboys & Aliens' failed to be. Beginning in New York City in 1881, Edgar, the nephew of John Carter, is sent a telegram requesting his presence at Uncle John's lavish home. When Edger arrives, he learns that his uncle has passed away and left him the estate. Edgar (playfully named Edgar Rice Burroughs – the author of the early 1900s 'John Carter' book series) then begins reading John's diary, learning of what has molded Uncle John into the great man he was. 95 percent of what's shown in the movie depicts the events described in the journal.
The diary begins over a decade earlier. After several run-ins with the law (Bryan Cranston), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch of 'Battleship') is a fugitive on the loose who is chased into a mysterious cave by an angry group of American Indians. Once inside, a man appears out of nowhere and starts brawling with Carter. In the process, Carter shoots the futuristic-looking man dead and discovers a glowing blue medallion. As Carter picks it up, he repeats the alien dying words of this man and is instantly whisked away to a to Mars – or as the Martians call it, "Barsoom."
Carter's troubles on Earth stemmed from him fleeing a civil war, but it's just his luck that he plopped down in the middle of another civil war – this one he cannot run away from. Two races of humans have been battling on Mars for some time now. The balance has just shifted as a group of angelic watchers have favored one side, giving them an undiscovered power that will easily vanquish the other. Because of John Carter's muscle mass and bone density, the new strange new gravity gives him superpower-ish strengths. When he begins fighting for the underprivileged side, the scales are once again even.
My first viewing of 'John Carter' was great – but it was the second one that allowed to me to see just how fun the movie actually is. Pixar's Andrew Stanton deserves much more credit for what's done here. One large-scale action sequence in the middle of the film (which I call a Martian 'Lost' moment) exemplifies Stanton's talents – as if 'Wall•E' wasn't proof enough of what great a director he is. Although this scene is filled with blue-bloody action, it's inter-cut with the shots that finally reveal Carter's emotionally-heavy shrouded past. Set to a rousing score from Michael Giacchino, this scene is brilliant and powerful.
My biggest complaint with 'John Carter' is that it feels rushed – too much information in too little time. I'm certain this must have been an executive decision, not a directorial one. 'John Carter' crams (what feels like) a three-hour epic adventure movie into 132 minutes. Had it been given more time to develop itself and breathe, I'm certain that the audiences who walked away dissatisfied would have been more pleased.
The climax of the diary-based story is pretty standard - it's good, not great - but the actual ending to the movie is what makes me want to see more of where this series could go. Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the 'John Carter'/'Barsoom' series, wrote 11 books in the cannon. Considering the genius ending to this movie, I want to see the rest. Written between 1912 and 1964, these books offer the original content that movies like 'Star Wars,' 'Stargate,' 'Avatar' and many others seem to have been born from. It would be great to see this influential series furthered, so here's to hoping that 'John Carter' has a long life on Blu-ray so that Disney will go ahead and green-light the next two films in this planned trilogy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment offers fans two options when purchasing 'John Carter' on Blu-ray, either in 2D or 3D. For this review, the 2D package is a two-disc combo pack inside a vortex blue keepcase that slides vertically into a glossy and embossed slipcase. The region-free BD-50 is accompanied by a DVD-9 copy of the movie. Also included is a paper with a unique code that allows you to redeem your Disney Movie Rewards points for purchasing 'John Carter.' Upon inserting the disc, you are immediately prompted to choose your listening preference: English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio Service, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and French 5.1 Dolby Digital. Once selected, you can either skip to main menu or watch a Disney preview reel and trailers for 'The Avengers' and 'Frankenweenie.'
'John Carter' has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. While the image is 100 percent clear, it's not the five-star release that I was hoping for.
Aside from a single occurrence of a very minor compression issue, the only problem with 'John Carter' is a lack of sharpness and detail. Don't get me wrong – the image isn't fuzzy, it just isn't as sharp as most new transfers out there. Some close-up shots reveal the details – pores, facial hair, and textures – that we're used to seeing, but, on the whole, this disc does not.
Everything else about 'John Carter' is fantastic. The color is vivid and impressive. I was especially wowed by the way that colored filters were applied without removing the natural skin tone of John Carter in the midst of the filtered palette of the Martian environment. Black levels are deep and dark and shadow delineation is strong.
The one compression issue that I noticed was very minor aliasing in the very first shots of the movie when the villain is given a godly weapon. His first reaction is to destroy the beings who gave it to him. As he attempts it, he is thrown to the deck of his ship. As he falls, the grated flooring that he falls to reveals the slightest amount of flickering. It's such a minor flaw that I had to watch it again to make sure that my eyes didn't deceive me. Aside from that, there aren't any other compression issues. DNR and edge enhancement are not used.
Things improve dramatically in the audio department, delivering a much more satisfying experience than the video. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack comes with several immersive moments which are terrific and sure to please. The surrounds fill the room with the atmospherics of Barsoom's desert landscapes and the cheers of the crowd inside a Thark arena. Aircrafts zoom across the sky with fluid panning, and the sounds of a major clash in the finale envelop the listener with appreciable realism.
Imaging across the front soundstage is broad and welcoming with excellent channel separation and outstanding directionality. Vocals are perfectly placed in the center of the screen and never drowned out by the heat of battle. Off-screen effects are crystal-clear and persuasive with an extensive dynamic range that nicely distinguishes the highs from the mids with resounding clarity. This provides Michael Giacchino's pulpy score with a substantial presence while smoothly bleeding into the background. Low-frequencies effects are often terse and palpable, but not quite as authoritative or earth-shattering as we'd expect, given the amazing visuals, such as the white ape-like monsters. Still, this lossless mix of 'John Carter' makes for a fun and highly entertaining aural experience.
'John Carter' isn't the best adventure movie out there, but it's definitely much better than the bad wrap it has gotten. It doesn't help that the trailers and television spots did it no favors, making it look like a blend of the standard run-of-the-mill epic movie and 'Star Wars' – but with it being available on home video, it's time for people to see it and make up their minds for themselves. I can only hope that it will live long and prosper so Disney will move forward with their plans to make it into a trilogy. The Blu-ray itself features decent video and very strong audio qualities. If you, like me, walk away loving the movie, then you'll be satisfied with the included special features. I'm just as happy and pleased with the Blu-ray as I am with the movie itself. I can only hope that those who prematurely wrote it off will finally give it chance.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.