When you think about the greatest stories in science fiction, depending on what generation you're from, the titles and franchises that come to the forefront of your mind can vary greatly. However, it's most likely that the majority of film-goers are probably unfamiliar with the 100-year-old tale of John Carter of Mars. But in 1912, author Edgar Rice Burroughs created John Carter and an entire new world that exists on Mars - complete with differing alien races and their own language. It has taken almost as long, since the story was penned, for the film to be realized on the big screen, but director Andrew Stanton makes his live action directorial debut (Finding Nemo and WALL-E are among his previous projects) with the first theatrical depiction of the story, appropriately titled John Carter.
However, the problem out of the gate with John Carter is that Stanton and company may be taking for granted how much they know and appreciate the original source material that this film is derived from. It's to the point that relating it to those unfamiliar with it may be a difficult task. While I grew up on stories that were no doubt inspired by the groundwork laid by Burroughs, I had never heard of his Martian tale until trailers for John Carter hit screens. If anyone views Carter not knowing how old the story is, they're liable to watch the film and just be constantly reminded of other, perhaps even better, stories we've come to know over the years. This is actually sad to consider, since John Carter's adventures came first, but ultimately, there isn't a whole lot about the story of John Carter that feels fresh. While watching it, I was frequently hit with imagery reminiscent of recent films like Star Wars: Episode II and Episode III, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Stargate (the original movie), The Time Machine (either film), and even last year's Cowboys and Aliens. This immediately gives John Carter a 'been there, done that' feel, which is unfair to Burroughs' source material.
I'm not sure whether or not Stanton was aware of this being a problem going into production, but it's evident that Carter is a labor of love for the filmmaker. Another strike that Carter has against it right away, however, is the presence of mostly a not-quite A-list cast. With the exception of Willem Dafoe (who, granted, does have Speed 2 as a strike against him), relying on Taylor Kitsch as a leading man isn't a recipe for cinematic success (as the recent flop of Battleship helps prove). Lynn Collins, who was Wolverine's love interest in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the 'reject' of Keanu Reeves' affection in Lakehouse, does fairly well here, while Dominic West (who I haven't seen in a film since The Forgotten in 2004) is okay as the film's villain, Sab Than. Ultimately, despite a fair enough script, there just isn't enough charisma going around to really make the end result all that memorable. It's all quite a lot for Kitsch to carry on his shoulders and he just doesn't have much warmth or charm. He wears the same look of squinty-eyed bewilderment throughout much of the film. Granted, compared to any of George Lucas' recent Star Wars prequels, the acting is gushing with life, but ultimately, there's something special lacking that needs to be there. From a princess in distress possibly having to marry the villain against her will, who then runs away with the film's hero (although the relationship isn't as volatile, it did remind me of Prince of Persia), to a desert landscape serving as a backdrop for otherworldly adventure (Stargate, Star Wars), and a man out of his early days in the 1900's finding himself in, seemingly, another time or another age (The Time Machine)-- it all feels much too familiar. If you throw in the arena scene from Attack of the Clones, sans light sabers, and have the hero rip through a deceased monster, covered in its entrails (like in the Clash of the Titans remake), it doesn't really help that feeling either.
But familiarity aside, the other aspect that makes John Carter difficult to warm up to on the first viewing is the entry into a new and foreign universe may need Cliff Notes. Unless you're well-versed in the John Carter of Mars mythology, you're likely to get a little lost as new races and languages are thrown at you from the start. For example, knowing that the four-armed green aliens are called Tharks didn't seem all that clear until a while into the story. Also, nearly every character on Mars seems to call someone else "Jeddak," which, upon its first usage, I'd assumed was a character's name. Once it began to get repeated time and time again, I wasn't quite sure if it was that character they were referring to or what. After a while, I realized it seemed to stand for the equivalent of "Captain" or "King" in their own tongue. The fact that these are only just a few of the many new words and mythologies being thrown at the viewer one after the other, I can imagine one could get lost fairly quickly. These are problems that can easily be remedied with repeat viewings, but if you are fairly certain you'll only watch this once or are easily confused when watching a movie, you might want to steer clear of John Carter.
To be fair, all similarities to other stories aside, John Carter is still a decent action/adventure sci-fi effort. Sure, it won't be remembered as fondly as Star Wars, Star Trek or even Firefly (TV series) and Serenity, but there's enough for fans of the genre to like about this film to make it worthwhile. While I don't think Taylor Kitsch is a strong leading man, he still does pretty well regardless. I think the 'make-it or break-it' for a movie like this is in how strong, memorable and likable the main protagonist is, and it's safe to say that Kitsch's John Carter is certainly no Indiana Jones or Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. He's maybe a bit too dry and serious, and it sucks some needed fun from the story. If this film were made with, perhaps, a younger Harrison Ford back in the 80s, it probably would have been deemed a classic for today. And while no one in the cast stands out as bad or annoying or painfully wooden, the performances just aren't exceptionally memorable either. In the end, John Carter just serves as a decent B-movie at best.
The content is definitely worthy of the PG-13 rating. Due to all of the aliens having blue blood instead of red, Stanton gets away with quite a bit of blue blood flying whenever the swords come out and soldiers and aliens are seen getting slashed. There's also one instance where a human-like Martian is impaled with the sword and we briefly see it sticking out of his back (with blue blood around the wound). During the arena scene where Carter is forced to fight a huge "white ape," one of the beasts lands on him and we see him rip through the back of the creature, emerging covered in blue blood all over. Another shot shows one of those beasts tearing a Thark in half, but shown only in shadow/silhouette form as it happens. We also briefly see a decapitated Thark and, during the finale, we see a man's forearm get sliced off (with the dismembered limb on the ground in a later shot) and we see their face get completely engulfed in a blue webbing of sorts which then constricts and caves their head in (it sounds worse than it looks, but it's still pretty violent). Finally, there is some profanity, mostly "h*ll" and "d*mn," with at least one use of "g*dd*mn" and a couple derivatives of "Oh my G-d."
While it may sound like I put John Carter through the ringer here, it really is still an enjoyable action/adventure sci-fi film (especially if you don't go into it expecting a lot); it's just quite easy to pick out lots of things wrong with the movie. It won't be the best movie you'll see all year, but if you like popcorn flicks and are a sucker for sci-fi, John Carter, despite its flaws, gets the job done.
- John DiBiase (reviewed: 6/7/12)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
John Carter is available from Disney in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, a single DVD, and a Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack. The picture quality is crisp and colorful and perfect for high definition. Some may feel as though the picture may be too clear for its own good at times, but it's still a fine HD presentation. Along with the feature film, the following extras are included on the Blu-Ray disc...
100 Years in the Making (10:43) - In 1912, author Edgar Rice Burroughs debuted John Carter, a character that would go on to influence science fiction as we know it today. Sadly, most people know what has been influenced by Burroughs incredibly more than the man's work itself. This short featurette addresses how director Andrew Stanton grew up loving the story and how it has taken until now for this film to be realized. Director/actor Jon Favreau also talks about his passion for Burroughs' work and how he almost came to make this movie a few years ago himself.
Deleted Scenes (19:02) - There are ten deleted scenes of varying degrees of completion - from fully finished to completely missing visual effects altogether. The first is the "Original Opening" in the Hall of Science. It helps lay out the story pretty well, but it isn't especially engaging. "Ned at College" shows young Ned in class receiving a telegram from Carter. It's a neat scene, but I'm sure it was cut for pacing. The next scene (which contains a use of "Son of a B***h") is an extended version of the awestruck Ned receiving Carter's journal. "Journey To Thark City" is a snippet of Carter being carried on Thoats to the Thark City (1 "d*mn"). "Sola and Dejah Confrontation" is literally just a brief staredown between the two. "Campfire" is such a brief scene that it feels extremely unfinished just due to its brevity. "Thoat Ride" is an extended scene between Tars and Carter in which Carter attempts to get his medallion back and ends up being thrown in a tent with Dejah. "Dejah's Answer" is an extended version of when Sab Than tries to encourage her to consider marrying him. In this one, which includes unfinished footage, she stops her interaction with Sab when she sees a wounded Carter being carried nearby. Sab Than later asks her for her answer, which she says she'll just tell him another time. "Matai's Walk" includes an obnoxious additional character that Matai transforms into while leading Carter around. This was a wise cut. "Groomsmen Assassins" simply highlights how the groomsmen in the wedding were plants in order to aid in the final battle. This "scene" is a collection of three scenes that include characters that were otherwise omitted.
360 Degrees of John Carter (34:32) - This half-hour long featurette walks viewers through the basic schedule of one day of filming on the set of John Carter. From cast (like Lynn Collins) and extras entering make-up at 7:30 in the morning to actual filming taking place on a set surrounded with green screen, it's intriguing to watch just a snippet of how the film was realized. Ironically, the day they chose to document was scheduled to involve Taylor Kitsch, the actor who plays the title character, but they ran out of time for the day. There is, however, a brief addition of footage at the end of the featurette about his work filmed the day before in an attempt to compensate.
Barsoom Bloopers (1:56) - This short blooper reel is pretty entertaining as it quickly shows goofing around on stage, accidents (like a boat running into a piece of the set), and line flubs.
Disney's Second Screen - This is actually the first time I've had the chance to check out the Second Screen feature. Basically, you download an app to your iPad or Macbook that can automatically sync to your movie (or vice versa) using BD Live. It allows you to see all kinds of production photos as the movie progresses, concept art, actor bios, etc, and then allows you to tap into deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes videos. Some of these are part of the special features on the disc while others are exclusive to the Second Screen. It's especially neat if you're really interested in going deeper into the production of the film. What's neat, too, is that if you feel as though you're missing too much of the movie while viewing stuff with the app, you can easily sync up the movie so it rewinds back to where you last launched a feature on the Second screen app!
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 6/7/12)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Sex/Nudity: Dejah shows some cleavage in her outfits/dresses; We see Carter completely nude from behind being thrown into a bath. As he's thrown in, an alien arm blocks any explicit nudity; We see a woman wake up in bed on her wedding night with her husband not next to her. She has just the covers wrapped around her up to her chest and walks around with the sheets wrapped around her while looking for him.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 "g*dd*mn," 6 "h*ll" (1 in subtitles); 4 "d*mn," 1 "Oh my G-d," 1 "Good G-d"
Blood/Gore: Sab Than has some blue blood on his face; Carter has a bloody lip; We see a little blood on the clothes of the colonel; We see a little wound on Carter's clothed butt; We see blue blood go flying as Carter and Dejah slice up some troops with swords. We then see a sword sticking out of one of the soldier's backs with a little blue blood around it; Carter has a bloody nose; Carter slashes many Tharks with his sword with blue blood spraying everywhere; We see Carter lying on the ground with a few bloody cuts and some blue blood from his victims splattered on him; We see Tars all scratched up with blue bloody cuts; We see several creatures dead with spears sticking out of them in an arena; Sola then tosses a Thark into the ring, which is then grabbed by the white ape and torn in half (the tearing is shown being done via the shadow cast by the ape and the Thark victim; Sola throws a dagger to Carter, who stabs the white ape with it as it lands on top of him. We then see Carter climb through the back of the white ape, all covered in blue blood; Carter challenges Tal Hajus and the two leap in the air at each other. In one swoop of the sword, Carter beheads Tal Hajus. We see a little bit of blue blood fly as Tal Hajus hits the ground, with his head hitting the ground first; We see a lot of splashes of blue blood as soldiers slash each other with swords; Carter stabs a man in the leg with a sword and then cuts off his arm (lots of blue blood). We see the arm lying dismembered on the ground. A blue pulse of energy crawls up the man's arm and covers his face like a net and implodes his head (it's not graphic); We see a drop of blood around a blade at Carter's neck; Carter slices his own hand quickly, drawing blood.
Violence: We see a battle of two opposing forces with swords. Then a ship fires on three ships, disintegrating two of them and most of the third. We see many of the soldiers get vaporized; Carter hits two guys and holds a gun up to the face of another; Carter head-butts a soldier and rushes them, but is subdued again; Carter jumps out a window and then we see him thrown into a jail; The colonel punches Carter in the stomach; Carter urinates through his cage (we just see the stream) and when the guard comes, he pulls him into the bars, knocking him out; Some firing opens between troops and Apaches, with the colonel getting hit; A man with a dagger attacks Carter, but he shoots him; Carter keeps trying to run and keeps flying and falling; Tharks open fire on Carter, one throws a spear at him; Carter gets shot in the butt; The Tharks open fire on unhatched eggs of Thoats (unseen); We see footage of Sab Than vaporizing aliens and ships; We see Tharks fighting over a baby Thoat. They then drag Carter before cutting him loose; Carter tackles a Thark and he is pulled back with a sword put to his neck. Two Tharks butt heads (literally, over what to do with him) and they take Carter away. In the next scene, he is seen being stripped down like a baby and shaven; The Tharks start beating a monster dog. Carter punches one of them off of it and he kills the Thark with one punch. They then tackle him. Tars Tarkas then throws them off of him; An alien smacks Carter in the face; An alien takes a hot poker to the back of another alien and burns it into their back; Sab Than attacks many people and vaporizes some; Carter attacks some approaching men, but his sword flies into the hands of Dejah, who then slashes many soliders, impaling one of them; Carter jumps onto a ship and starts fighting soldiers. Sab Than and Carter briefly fight and the Tharks open fire on the opposing ship; A Thark punches another in the face; We see Tharks picking up their dead from a ship's wreckage and piling them up; A couple Tharks hold guns on Sola and then drag Carter away and hold a sword to his throat. Tars Tarkas shoves Carter and then punches him; We see a dead woman, who may be holding a dead baby in a blanket, in a burnt up house during a flashback; Carter and Woola fight an army of aliens, killing many of them and we see blue blood constantly spraying and the dead creatures piling up; Dejah puts a sword up to Sab Than's neck; Matai shoots Carter with a blue energy weapon which burns a line up his legs and arms, restricting him; Woola tackles Matai, bites his arm and frees Carter; Sola shoots down a ship pursuing Carter; We see Tars all scratched up with blue bloody cuts. He then attacks Carter; We see several creatures dead with spears sticking out of them in an arena; A "white ape" throws Tars and Carter around in the arena. Sola then tosses a Thark into the ring, which is then grabbed by the white ape and torn in half (the tearing is shown being done via the shadow cast by the ape and the Thark victim); Carter hits a white ape with a boulder, knocking it over. Sola throws a dagger to Carter, who stabs the white ape with it. We then see Carter climb through the back of the white ape, all covered in blue blood; Carter challenges Tal Hajus and the two leap in the air at each other. In one swoop of the sword, Carter beheads Tal Hajus. We see a little bit of blue blood fly as Tal Hajus hits the ground, with his head hitting the ground first; Tharks shoot open a gate; A Thark smacks Carter on the back of the head; A battle breaks out between soldiers from Zoldanga and Helium; Dejah stabs Sab Than in the hand with a dagger; Carter stabs a man in the leg with a sword and then cuts off his arm; We see the arm lying dismembered on the ground and a blue pulse of energy crawls up the man's arm and covers his face like a net and implodes his head (it's not graphic); Carter jumps to attack Matai and is nearly killed by Tars by accident; We see a skeleton lying nearby a man when he awakens; Carter slices his own hand quickly, drawing blood; A man is shot and killed.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.