It's no secret that John Carter was a flop. Chalk it up to a bloated budget, a woefully ineffective marketing campaign, or the title. In a twist of irony, John Carter is actually a pretty damn good film if one stops to see it for the Star Wars-esque fluff that it is. Where does John Carter shine, though, and where does it stumble? Let's take a look.
John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) is based on the first book in Edgar Rice Burrough's "Barsoom" series about a civil war captain who inadvertently finds himself transported to Mars. He soon gets caught in the middle of a war between the humanoid Red Martian cities of Zodanga and Helium, the former commanded by the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West) who is being aided by the mysterious Therns in an effort to control the planet. To further his agenda, he has offered a ceasefire in exchange for the hand of Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the Princess of Helium. Dejah escapes Sab's clutches in an effort to work on the ninth ray, a source of infinite power that could turn the tide against Sab Than's forces. After being attacked by Than, the Princess is saved by John Carter, who possesses superhuman powers thanks to his Earth-based bone density and lighter Mars gravity. Carter soon becomes an unanticipated wild card in the war, and must decide whether to seek a way to return home to Earth, or stay on Mars and become its savior.
The film is all about visual effects. John Carter boasts a $250 million budget, and it's not hard to see why. Early trailers for the film seemed to indicate another Star Wars: Episode II, complete with poor and obvious compositing work. None of that here. John Carter is remarkably seamless, and is one of the first green-screened visual effects films to come along in quite some time that doesn't look unrealistic. There's no heavy oversaturation of colors, no fake suns and lens flare effects, and no sense that this was all filmed on a dingy sound stage on a production lot. Even the alien Tharks seem to animate with an almost Avatar-like level of believable. The film isn't visually flawless, however, and does show its seams in a few places, most notably Woola, the obese, yet insanely fast martian dog that bonds to John Carter. All in all, John Carter is a film designed to wow audiences of all ages, and in that regard, it succeeds. I originally judged the film based on the type of marketing material that Disney was pushing at the time of release, and in retrospect, I was wrong. Very wrong. John Carter is thoroughly enjoyable, even if doesn't have anything important to say. If you haven't seen it, now is the time.
On Blu-Ray, John Carter gets the ultimate treatment. The video is practically flawless, as can be expected. As mentioned before, oversaturation is traded for the right amounts of hue and warmth appropriate to a movie that takes place on a martian landscape. This helps push the appeal of the film, which feels more like a classic 1980s adventure flick instead of a studio-crafted green-screen mess. HD transfers tend to pull up the skirts of most CGI shots, but good luck finding that here. The animators did such a wonderful job integrating CGI into live action that only a few scenes (such as the aforementioned Woola) really suffer for it. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track is the proper mate; a perfect example of meticulous film audio craftsmanship. Voices are properly balanced in relation to all the action, refusing to rob the viewer of dialog like so many other Blu-Ray transfers do. Low-end bass is utilized in all the right places, from the hum of ships to the galloping of creature's footsteps. The rear channel accentuates ambient support in the form of roaring crowds and subtle musical clues, immersing you in 360 degree sonic flora. The Blu-Ray is blessed with a nice selection of extras, including an entertaining gag reel, a Burrough's retrospect, deleted scenes a few other tidibts.
John Carter's failure is difficult to pinpoint, yet it overshadows a movie that deserves to be watched. Its source material was written at a time when scientific understanding of planets was in its relative infancy, further hurting the accessibility of the film for new generations who know a lot better. It can also be a little too violent for it's target audience, and runs aground on story a few times, never really going anywhere except towards a frenzied finale, but it's summer popcorn movie fun with some great laughs, a surprising amount of heart, and a distinct visual style that is sure to make families smile.
Give it a shot.