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The Great Train Robbery

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John Carter’s artistic success isn’t diminished by the movie’s commercial failure; consider it a $250 million throwback to 1950s pulp sci-fi spectacle and give the movie’s excellent Blu-ray presentation a spin.

Barsoom-sized Budget

John Carter of Blu-ray
John Carter of Blu-ray

Yeah. Spending $250 million on a single movie isn’t the wisest business plan, even if that movie is based on a century-old property with a built-in audience of fans.

At least in the case of John Carter the money, by and large, is seen on screen. The awe-inspiring budget wasn’t the result of egregious overruns or directorial incompatence. The movie stretched the boundaries of motion capture animation, the technique Robert Zemeckis explored in movies like Beowulf and Steven Spielberg used to bring Tintin to the big screen. The actors (Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton among the cast of Martians) were no longer relegated to a Spartan set; they were able to take their funny-looking outfits and gear on location and act alongside the live action cast members.

With John Carter, director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) became the latest Pixar magician to defect to live action cartoons. Brad Bird also did it in December with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, a movie which made Tom Cruise look almost as lifelike as the human boy in the original Toy Story.

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, this interpretation of John Carter’s first adventure on Mars is an impressive piece of storytelling; there’s certainly more to chew on here than in Ethan Hunt’s latest adventure. And no doubt Disney had high hopes for this as a new franchise, particularly given Burroughs wrote 10 more books in his Barsoom saga. The crickets chirping at the box office, however, were singing the dirge to that ambition.

John Carter of Virginia

The saga begins with a veteran confederate captain named John Carter, a tough hooligan and a fighting machine on an earthbound mission in 1868 Arizona. He’s obsessed with finding a cave full of gold and an ugly run-in with a band of Indians (ooops, Native Americans) serendipitously forces him smack dab into the cave of his quest. One thing leads to another, as they tend to do in stories like this, and John winds up on Mars, referred to by the indigenous beings as the planet Barsoom.

It turns out Barsoom’s warring tribes are hell-bent on self-destruction, if not self-preservation, much like Earth’s human race. A “predator city” is on the move, devouring other cities with a goal of world domination.

Burroughs – and Stanton – uses this setting to convey themes of racism, religious zealotry, ecology, culture, and freedom.

John Carter is a great, great character and, while Taylor Kitsch (TV’s Friday Night Lights) isn’t always credible and sometimes comes across as a little leaden, there’s enough of that “great man” persona on screen to make this rendition compelling. Carter’s a hardworking man, highly skilled, ambitious, and fighting the memories and ghosts of a horrible past. He’s haunted by the grisly deaths of his wife and daughter.

This is the genre-bending, far-reaching adventure Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been and the source story reveals itself to a wider audience as the inspiration behind popular pablum like Avatar.

The Martian Chronicles

A Princess of Mars (Lynn Collins)
A Princess of Mars (Lynn Collins)

Originally published 100 years ago, Burroughs’ work is a terrific read to this day. With any luck, moviegoers will pick up on the story’s origins and dig into those classic works of pure pulp fiction. As found in editions subsequent to the original serial version published under the pseudonym Norman Bean, the tale is told as a chronicle written by Carter and left to his nephew, none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs himself.

A lot of ground is covered in this tale that moves from 1881 New York City back to 1868 Arizona then Mars and then Earth once again. The weighty agenda starts to run on the long side as the Martian climax approaches, a sluggishness that can in part be attributed to the murky handling of a tribe of changelings led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes).

Even so, the story of John Carter, a family man and a warrior, carries some of the same soulfulness found in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Carter faces one challenge after another and manages to rise above. And when his unnatural abilities as a human on Mars become the envy of those in need of his help, it’s hard to turn away when asked, “If you had the power to save lives, wouldn’t you make it so?”

In the thick of this adventure Carter meets the titular Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, Wolverine), an unearthly beauty who is every bit Carter’s match in terms of integrity and bravery. But she needs his help to save her people. Trite? Perhaps. But, c’mon, the triteness derives from 100 years of others plundering Burroughs’ work for oftentimes uncredited inspiration.

Given that $250 million price tag, John Carter doesn’t pay off in spades, but it is a well-meaning piece of pure cinematic ambition that earns a fair amount of respect.

Blu-ray Exclusives

This review covers the Blu-ray/DVD 2-disc combo pack. Also available are a 4-disc set (including 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy) and a single-disc DVD edition.

The Blu-ray includes Disney’s Second Screen presentation of supplemental material packaged for use on iPads or PCs, however the app was not available for download at the time of this writing. Director Andrew Stanton’s introduction of the Second Screen feature is included on the Blu-ray and it looks like the presentation will have good information once it’s available. Pending a complete look at the Second Screen material, consider the 3-star supplemental rating as 3 stars with an asterisk. As a side note, Stanton is seen sporting a bizarre shark fin hairdo in the intro segment. It looks ridiculous. And the camera angles on this simple little intro spot are annoying; no need for him to be looking anywhere else than directly into the camera, fellas.

Anyway, on to what’s available in the here and now.

360 Degrees of John Carter (35 minutes) is essentially a look at Day 52 of the production. This has good content but it suffers from a very annoying presentation style, most notably the incessant beeping of a faux digital alarm clock as the footage moves throughout the course of the day. Sure, it captures some of the nuttiness of a film set through the use of multiple split screen views and quick-cut editing; through it all, though, director Stanton appears calm, cool, and collected. There are moments when Stanton points out the differences between working with live actors on a movie like John Carter compared to the greater flexibility found while working on a movie like Wall-E. That angle would’ve made for a better jumping-off point for a documentary of this sort, something more meaningful and less schizophrenic. At the segment’s conclusion, it’s noted there is an extended version available via Second Screen.

The Deleted Scenes (19 minutes) section includes an introduction by Stanton (and his silly shark fin hairdo) along with an optional commentary track in which Stanton explains the rationale behind the scenes’ removal; some of the scenes didn’t make it through the raw, rough cut stage. Stanton also makes reference to the possibility of other films to build out some of the character relationships. Of the 10 clips presented, the best scene involves Edgar Rice Burroughs in a classroom.

Barsoom Bloopers offers 2 minutes of on-the-set goofiness; it’s worth watching simply to see Lynn Collins shake what her momma gave her in a couple musical gags.

Blu-ray Extras

The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes a couple supplemental features presented on both discs.

100 Years in the Making is a well-produced 11-minute featurette about the history of the story, cleverly including first-person voice over work by “Edgar Rice Burroughs.” The segment stops short of being a more fully-realized look at Burroughs himself, however. Included are comments from Jon Favreau, who at one point had his own version of John Carter in development.

The feature Audio Commentary presents director Stanton along with producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins in a lively discussion about the making of the movie. It’s a good track that includes loads of production information.

While listening to them talk about the movie during a conversation that was clearly recorded prior to the film’s theatrical release (it’s the nature of the business these days, with the incredibly shrinking release window growing ever shorter), the question lingers as to the value proposition of recording a track post-release in order to take into consideration commercial and critical reactions. It’s almost haunting to hear jokes about Disney’s accounting department and Collins asking the rhetorical question, “What could possibly go wrong?” It’s acknowledged the production was conceived as the beginning of at least a trilogy (remember, Burroughs wrote 11 stories in the series). That’s where a post mortem take on things would be interesting to hear, although Stanton and company would probably be too despondent to participate. The thought of the possible is more fun than the reality of what’s since become impossible.

On a brighter note, Stanton offers up a funny anecdote about an impromptu request for chickens for a particular earthbound scene. Kudos, also, to Stanton’s use of the description “pulp Shakespeare” while discussing the seasoned British cast members and the gravitas they were able to lend to the material.

Picture and Sound

The movie offers loads of eye-popping visuals and a superbly-executed blend of live action actors and CGI characters. The Blu-ray is up to the challenge with an absolutely pristine presentation in a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Any narrative qualms aside, the movie is simply fun to look at and all of the details packed on the screen encourage repeat viewings. But the image quality is so fine, it does, in a couple scenes, betray the layers of the visual effects work. It’s the kind of visual hocus-pocus that got glossed over while watching the movie’s 3D theatrical presentation.

The Blu-ray audio is also well done, with the primary track in 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio. It’s well done, but perhaps bearing with it a smidge of disappointment; it falls a wee bit shy of true ear-popping showcase material in terms of full-on surround sound design.

Also available are tracks in English 2.0 Descriptive Video Service, French Dolby Digital 5.1, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1.

Optional captions on the Blu-ray are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.

How to Use This Disc

Check out 100 Years in the Making then enjoy the – extremely underrated – movie.