“Star Wars for a new generation”
That really is quite a claim for any new movie. So is this an innovative Sci-Fi adventure with a clear story line, re-telling the age old battle between good and evil with cutting edge special effects and expansive sets? Err, no. It’s a muddled, complicated movie where you get the impression that even the actors had not a clue what was going on! The CGI is good and of course Green Screen has replaced the need for Ben Hur sized sets on the whole. Shot largely in the UK with an international crew, it follows Star Wars in this respect at least.
The main reason for me wanting to review this movie was for its 3D content. We nearly came unstuck from the start, as the disc refused to play in 3D, just bringing up a warning message, with the TV flickering between 2D and 3D. This is on a fairly standard Panasonic BDT110 linked via a Sony AV amp to a Panasonic TXP42GT20 with network access for firmware updates, so this just smacks of poor testing. A non-networked Philips 3D player had the same issue. The fix for both was to dive into the menu, switch 3D off and then back on again. Further investigation suggests the issue is the time it takes the AV amp to handshake between the TV and BD, because with this taken out of circuit, the problem disappears. As a fair percentage of viewers will have similar AV setups, please be aware of the issue. Not a great start.
Storyline problem number one, it’s set on Mars and of course we all know now that Mars is far too arid to support any sort of intelligent life, so why do we have to suspend what we understand just to bring some alien action close to home? The reason is that the film is based on a magazine series written by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice-Burroughs, first published in 1912 and it originally went into film pre-production in 1936! I guess this probably makes it one of the longest slow burning movie developments of all time. The slightly worrying aspect of the initial storyline is that Rice-Burroughs was not even that proud of it as a piece of fiction and initially wrote it under a pen name. Although later he acknowledged its success and his name was reinstated on the covers. The opening graphic for Star Wars was “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and this gave the writers as much licence as they needed in terms of planetary conditions, weird space creatures and the like. By moving into known territory we all have to disregard our knowledge and pretend that what we are seeing is possible, even if not probable. If the link had been made more firmly back to Edwardian times, the leap would have been more manageable.
The opening battle scene does nothing to set the scene or tell us anything much meaningful about the opposing forces. The effects are so loud we cannot hear the dialogue and would not understand it even if we could. We get to know a little about the humanoid forces and the reason for Mars’ desolation and we are expected to believe that a relatively small walking city on legs has laid the entire surface to waste. Again a link back to the time the story was written would have helped here. We learn in the deleted scenes section that a different start was planned, but dropped late on. Have a look at this scene and decide which you think works best!
Things don’t really get much better when we switch back to earth. In a set of confusing flash backs we learn not an awful lot relevant to the first 3/4 of the movie. Sorry, but in Star Wars a 5 year old can work out who the goodies and baddies are and that is part of its appeal. We get to meet John Carter and find out a bit about his past, but it’s all still a bit of a head scratcher. Quite what a few of the characters have to do with the plot remains a mystery until much later on in the film. Following a quick bout of cowboys and Indians - after all, this is set at least partially in the Wild West, our hero is copy and pasted on to Mars (Barsoom) and his other world adventures begin. Hang on, I thought Avatar had the monopoly on out of body experiences? Of course this story pre-dates Avatar by many years so fingers cannot be pointed. There do however seem to be a few borrowed effects and storyline helpers in the mix that have been borrowed from a number of Sci-Fi movies though. During the film we get more flashbacks to John Carter’s early life on earth and all we can hope is that they make sense later on in the film.
The 3D content is not the best. Filmed conventionally on 35mm 2D and converted using rotoscoping (Cutting out parts of the image and electronically altering the depth) this really is a step back in terms of 3D, harking back to some releases from 2010. 2 years is a long time in technology terms and many more recent 3D releases trounce this one. The mainly computer generated “Barsoom” stuff looks OK, but the shots on earth look dull and lifeless, hence making them feel very flat. The issue is that the tight depth of field causes objects both in the foreground and background to be out of focus and set into the 3D plane. This really does not work. 3D works best with a much shallower depth of field so that more of the shot appears in focus and the eye does not have to work so hard. Different distances can then be accentuated through lighting levels instead of focus. Some teams are becoming expert at shooting 3D, as the rules differ from 2D and you get the feeling that first time live action Director Andrew Stanton needed a more experienced DOP to make the 3D work. Watching in 2D shows the movie off to its best but in my opinion it’s nothing special.
Back on Barsoom, the reasons why the “Goddess” has favoured one of the humanoid tribes over the other is unclear. There is simply too much going on to build a strong back story and in the end I found myself switching off from the reasons and watching the movie on at a shallower level. In this respect it’s a bit like David Lynch’s Dune and the parallels are probably more closely drawn here than to Star Wars. No doubt the multiple levels are there to encourage the viewer to watch again, but I feel the frustration and lack of clear plot will alienate many before they get to this point though.
The plot now thickens, with a non -human, warlike blue-green race introduced. It’s all sounding a bit familiar again, with more than a nod to both Phantom Menace and Avatar again due. Unfortunately the character has neither the humour of Jar-Jar Binks or the superior personality of James Cameron’s creations. This war-like tribe have a few strange traditions and one of the rare moments of humour involves John Carter being treated like a baby alien. All the good work is then immediately undone with a clumsy plot point to allow John Carter to understand and communicate with the aliens, Douglas Adam’s Bablefish are still tricky to beat! The reason why they consider him to be an undersized white ape instead of human is unclear, as he does not appear to be any different to the rest of the humanoids on the planet. Also not totally explained is why simply being born on Earth should give him super jumping powers and make him enormously tougher. We all know the gravity on Mars is a little bit less, but not enough to allow you to jump hundreds of feet and beat up battalions of baddies with little more than a scratch just because you have greater bone density. Maybe the cut and paste medallion had a few bugs…
Battle scene follows battle scene; humanoid versus humanoid, humanoid verses green alien, human verses green alien, you get the picture. The lack of a decent female lead does not help matters. Lynn Collins has a reasonable track record in sci-fi action movies, but she is not totally convincing in this role. Maybe she comes across as a bit mumsy and not as a Princess of the realm, not really haughty enough and a little bit preachy. It’s all a bit “Now follow me and do as you are told or there will be no supper before bed!”
Taylor Kitsch as John Carter is little better. He does the growly Wild West hero bit OK, but does not show any interest in his new surroundings or the cunning required as a solo adventurer. It’s all a bit shallow really. You do get the feeling that none of the cast really knew what the film was about and just went with the dialogue. Even William Dafoe and Mark Strong – both well respected actors seem to struggle to develop the characters to their full.
There are plenty of sub plots and twists and turns along the way, again strengthening the suggestion that watching the film a few times will open up new layers. I sat through it twice and did get a little more out of it the 2ndtime through. The transition from Wild West hobo to Bassom Hero is not well handled and you sometimes get the feeling that Kitsch is struggling to think without moving his lips.
On the brighter side, the CGI is simply stunning and the costume design equally well handled and has a style of its own. Although in 3D some of this is lost, the technical quality of the Disney name is upheld. The sound is not so great. Much has been written on this forum about a DTS-HD HR sound track instead of the MA that graced the US only release. Although doubtless there will be a perceived difference – particularly with respect to the steering of the effects within the surround channels and more importantly the dynamic range, but the issue is more to do with the clarity of some of the dialogue. It’s just it gets buried in the effects and even the music score at times and you get the feeling that you are missing key lines, further adding to the frustration with the story line.
The death arena sequence is lifted directly from Star Wars Episode 2 and frankly is just not as well done. In a couple of shots you can clearly see that a restraining chain could simply have been looped off the hook. Not a major issue, but it distracts you from the scene as a whole.
As the film enters its third trimester we get the predictable massive battle scene followed by the mandatory union of Martian woman and Earth man. This is all well handled, but the 12 certificate does rather limit the blood and gore. Transported back to Earth, we are reintroduced very late to Ned – John Carter’s nephew and his new role as protector of Carter’s body while his spirit is dallying on Mars. No doubt this is to set up a series of sequels that given the almighty flop of this outing are unlikely to appear.
To sum up, this film had all the makings of being great. Unfortunately there is simply too much in the original story to portray in one film and this has made the film confusing and frustrating to watch. You are left wanting to explore some aspects more and I could have done with some aspects being truncated or even ignored. Chris McEneany reviewed the 2D US release and really enjoyed the film. He had already watched it in the cinema, so had a good understanding of the plot and ideology behind the film. I initially set out to review only the 3D aspects, expecting to agree with much of what Chris had enthused about. The truth is that my view of the film is entirely different! I suppose that makes it something of a Marmite experience then.
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