For all its stunning visual splendor and dazzling CG wizardry, Disney's 'John Carter' is one incredibly dull interplanetary sci-fi adventure. If the title, which is as uninspiring and uneventful as they come, weren't enough of an indication to the movie's sheer magnitude of monotony, then the first few minutes become the dead giveaway. We first met our eponymous hero as a grubby gold miner in desperate need of a hot bath and some decent hair conditioner, rambling to a barkeep about his hunt for a mysterious cave of gold. How he's come across such information or why he's obsessed with finding it is never explained for the full two-hours it takes to finally roll credits. Seems like a rather important fact to mention since his amazing journey to another planet hinges on his dogged pursuit for the cave.
But in a script that took three writers, which includes the film's director and Michael Chabon ('Wonder Boys,' 'Spider-Man 2'), such trifling details are expected to be overlooked by audiences. Perhaps, to a small degree, this is true. After all, we don't walk into something as pulpy and cheese-tacular as 'John Carter' wanting a compelling drama. We want wonder and astonishment, and all of it constructed from the visual effects enchantment of 1s and 0s. To this, director Andrew Stanton, who follows on the heels of Brad Bird's successful transition from Pixar animation to live-action and hoping for the same outcome, delivers reasonably well. The monstrously-budgeted fantasy-actioner can be fairly entertaining at times, especially during the spectacular battle sequences.
Unfortunately, it's all for naught when the plot does little to draws us into a world imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose first book featuring the gunslinging Virginian was originally titled A Princess of Mars. The titular hero is drearily played by Taylor Kitsch, enjoying his second box office flop at the moment with 'Battleship' since his departure from the TV series 'Friday Night Lights.' It's not so much that he's a bad actor as he is incapable of maintaining our interest for more than an hour. Basically, he's not ready to carry a lead role, and the same can be said of Stanton. His previous experience in animation makes him an excellent choice for designing some thrilling action sequences, but he doesn't know how to sell a story with lots of plot details or make it entertaining.
From the moment we see Carter transported from Earth, where a Union Colonel (Bryan Cranston) was trying to persuade him back into service, to Mars, the entire film feels frustratingly episodic. Discovering he has superpowers when on the Red Planet, which the locals call Barsoom, he soon befriends one of the natives, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Fade to black, tune in next week to see our hero find a love interest in the Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). And the week after that, journey with the pair and their alien companion Sola (Samantha Morton) to an enigmatic temple that looks like a gargantuan coral with glow-in-the-dark blue lights. As the plot thickens with a conspiracy involving Mark Strong as a god-like shape-shifter and Dominic West as a warring king wanting to marry the princess, the movie drags considerably, taking a simple two-hour narrative and turning into a television season.
Now, to be fair, you could do much worse than 'John Carter' — much, much worse. What we get instead from Stanton, based on a classic sci-fi fantasy novel by Burroughs, is less than satisfying and far from wholly exciting. Since their original publication, the serial adventures of the Wild West character have gone to become major influences for many generations, from James Cameron's 'Avatar' to the basic story design in Michael Blake's novel, 'Dances with Wolves.' So, there is a certain amount of familiarity which is partly to blame in our ho-hum feeling towards the movie. But the other part is Stanton lacking the chops to overcome our acquaintance with the plot and transporting his audience to a wildly inventive planet along with the film's protagonist. The director of now-animated classics 'Finding Nemo' and 'WALL•E' brings the visually fantastical to live-action movies, but forgets to make it sensational or more than mild entertainment.
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 3D package is a four-disc combo pack inside a slightly larger than normal blue keepcase with a lenticular slipcover. The first two are Region Free, BD50 discs sitting opposite each other on a flipper while the other two are a DVD-9 copy of the movie and a Digital Copy disc. At startup, the 3D disc commences with a 3D preview for 'Frankenweenie' before switching over to a 3D animated main menu screen with music. All supplemental material is contained on the 2D Blu-ray.
'John Carter' leaps onto 3D Blu-ray with yet another pointless post-conversion for a movie that is decisively better in its original 2D format. Although the process of converting film into 3D is starting to show signs of significant improvement, the results remain a lifeless presentation with very few scenes benefiting from the technology. Simply put, it does absolutely nothing to make the movie any more enjoyable and not once do we ever feel immersed by the imaginative visuals, which are ultimately wasted.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p/MVC encode displays fairly good depth throughout, creating a somewhat convincing sense of characters moving within a three-dimensional space. Separation between objects is also clean, and in some scenes, the background generates a decently appreciable illusion of distance. Sadly, that is only when the video is at its best, and it doesn't happen often enough. For the rest of the movie's runtime, the 3D presentation is pretty flat and boring, especially during dark nighttime scenes where dimensionality suddenly disappears. Although I wouldn't normally complain about the lack of gimmick photography, 'John Carter' is noticeably devoid of any pop-out effects and seriously wanting of at least one action sequence that recedes deep into the screen.
The rest of the high-def transfer is flawless and razor-sharp, revealing amazing, lifelike textures on the faces of the live-action cast and extraordinary details of the Martian architecture. Similarly, the olive-green skin of the Tharks shows several realistic and very distinct features, such as battle scars and small wrinkles around the eyes. From the clothing to the tattoo designs on the people of Barsoom, the image is highly-detailed with spot-on contrast and brilliant whites. Outlines in the shadows and during poorly-lit interiors are very well-defined and perceptible while blacks are inky rich and accurate. Primaries are dazzling from beginning to end, and secondary hues are full-bodied, providing the picture with an animated feel which otherwise makes up for the disappointing 3D presentation.
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.
Releasing day-and-date with its DVD counterpart, this Blu-ray edition of 'John Carter' comes with the same assortment of bonus material as the DVD.
Hoping to make the same successful transition as Brad Bird into live-action film, Andrew Stanton directs the visually-pleasing spectacle 'John Carter.' Starring Taylor Kitsch as the titular interplanetary hero based on the serial novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stanton has his moments during the sci-fi action sequences but he's unable to resolve the script's episodic design and make it into a worthwhile fantasy adventure. The 3D Blu-ray debuts with yet another pointless post-conversion that doesn't benefit the film in any way, but the lossless audio presentation fares much better. With an average collection of bonus material for fans to enjoy, the overall package makes a decent purchase or at the least, a rental.
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.