PURE GOLDER John Carter Preview

SFX.co.uk’s editor was lucky enough to be invited to Disney’s special 15-minute preview of John Carter

I was massively impressed with what I saw of John Carter . But not in the way I was expecting to be.

Let me put that in context. A few weeks back, a number of journalists from around Europe were invited to see around 15 minutes – across five clips – of John Carter , the new live-action sci-fi movie from Pixar director Andrew Stanton ( WALL-E ), introduced by Stanton himself. We were embargoed on saying anything until now, but with the trailer due to hit the internet on Thursday, we can now start enthusing.

And enthuse I will. I loved what I saw. But, as I said at the start, not for the reasons I thought I would.

Put simply, I thought I would be blown away by the effects. And I wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with them. And it’s reasonable to assume that Disney isn’t going to give away the most jawdropping eyecandy this early.

But think about it: this is a film from one of Pixar’s main movers and shakers. Pixar, a company that revolutionised the look of cinematic CGI. It would be reasonable to assume that, under Andrew Stanton, John Carter might be the next big, Avatar -style step in film FX, redefining the limits of CG wizardry.

The FX we saw certainly looked state of the art. Impressive. Exciting. But they didn’t feel like they were breaking boundaries in the way I was hoping. In fact, they almost felt familiar : a huge battle scene straight out of The Lord Of The Rings ; the motion capture CG characters moved like those in Avatar ; an arena fight scene evoked memories of Attack Of The Clones . All great fun, but nothing less than you’d expect from your blockbusters these days. (And, it should be pointed out, the FX aren’t being provided by Pixar, but various FX houses in London, mainly.)

Blown away

So, if I wasn’t blown away by the FX, why am I happy to enthuse about John Carter wholeheartedly?

Put simply, Andrew Stanton’s visual storytelling.

If he hasn’t imported Pixar’s pioneering attitude to FX, he clearly has imported the company’s ability to craft exquisitely-told cinematic tales with economy, wit and imagination. Okay, I’ve only seen 15 minutes, but from those five clips, I’ve seen enough to convince me that Stanton is a live-action director to be reckoned with. Even though we didn’t know quite what the plot was, or who these characters were, or what their motivations might be, it was easy to become emotionally invested in what was happening; to actually care.

For example, the epic battle I mentioned is gloriously ludicrous, and yet flashbacks to John Carter’s past suddenly gave the scene real heart. I’m not sure exactly what he was fighting for, but it was damned clear he was fighting for something .

Arguably, the most impressive scene in terms of Stanton’s direction was the one with the least effects. Taken from the very start of the movie, it features Carter as a reluctant recruit in the American Civil War, trying to escape his commission. I’m not going to spoil the scene here, but Stanton uses some very clever editing, a running gag and great performances to turn what’s essentially an exposition scene into something genuinely entertaining as well. It also sets up Carter’s character with wonderful economy.

There were many such flourishes throughout all five clips, infusing what could easily have become another Prince Of Persia or Clash Of The Titans with some real heart and soul. Just as with the best Pixar films, the fun, frolics and action are underpinned by more emotional clout than the vast majority of so-called “grown-up” blockbusters. John Carter looks like it could be an adventure movie that has characters you actually care about. I hope the trailer that’s being unleashed this Thursday reflects some of that.

Ain’t nothing but a hound dog

There is a lot of humour, it felt wittier (visually, as well as in terms of dialogue) and cleverer than the usual blockbuster buffoonery (think X-Men: First Class rather than Transformers ). There’s even some fun with subtitles. Barsoomian pooch Woola may set some alarm bells ringing in the still pics you’ve seen (oh, Lordy, comedy CGI sidekick) but he’s more Dug the dog from Up than Jar Jar Binks. Honest. And the odd bouncing effects (Cater can make mighty leaps thanks to the lower gravity on Barsoom) may look silly at first, but that’s probably because we’re more used to the slow motion leaps of Astronauts on the moon (Doctor Who fans may be reminded of the Master in “The End Of Time”); the effect comes into its own during the arena battle.

John Carter is clearly being pitched as a family adventure movie rather than at the usual young male-orientated blockbuster crowd, but it could just be cool enough to appeal to that cynical bunch too, like the first couple of Pirates Of The Caribbean films. Or, indeed, the best Pixar movies.

Sure, I may be getting a little over-excited. I’ve only seen 15 minutes, after all. But my gut reaction is that John Carter could be one of those rare blockbuster epics where the FX actually do serve the story, rather than compensating for it.

And as I said, they may be keeping the best FX a surprise. Why waste them all on cynical journos?

Dave Golder
Freelance Writer

Dave is a TV and film journalist who specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He's written books about film posters and post-apocalypses, alongside writing for SFX Magazine for many years.