Well, here’s something a little different — a review from The A.V. Club of the commentary track on the John Carter DVD/Blu-Ray. I believe this is by someone who specializes in trashing commentary tracks (this is from a category “Commentary Tracks of the Damned”) and those who make them, but it will be enjoyed a healthy portion of red meat by certain of our readers. Never let it be said I only put the favorable stuff up here.
- Failing to a shocking degree in domestic release, such that Disney at the time said it expected to lose $200 million in operating costs on the film; the film has reportedly finally recouped its production budget, though not its marketing budget
- Failing to give stars Taylor Kitsch (of Friday Night Lights fame) and Lynn Collins (True Blood) as much complicated, believable humanity as their many, many mo-capped CGI co-stars
- Resembling Avatar too closely, from its outsider-saves-the-noble-savages plot to its focus on alien vistas and seemingly endless big, blockbuster-worthy battles, but lacking Avatar’s visual innovation
Defenders: Director Andrew Stanton, producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins (no relationship to co-star Lynn Collins)
Tone of commentary: Cheerful, upbeat, and just a bit smug. The commentary was clearly recorded before the film’s theatrical release: Stanton talks about having only done a few interviews so far, and about franchise plans and the elements that will need to be repeated in everyJohn Carter sequel. There’s no mention of how the movie was later discussed in the news media as one of the biggest flops of all time, and dissected at length for what went wrong.
Instead, the filmmakers spend a great deal of time on standard commentary-track chat: the percentage of CGI vs. live-action footage in various shots and sequences, the order shots were taken, the symbolic meaning of various story developments or costume choices, and so forth. They discuss their admiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels, and the goal of making a timeless film that evokes those timeless books, then congratulate themselves on having nailed it. They sometimes talk like the film was an exhausting grind, and sometimes like it was a party—particularly during the scenes shot on a river, because sailing to work is fun, even when all the bathrooms are a 20-minute boat ride away. Morris says it was the biggest film any of them had worked on, but that just kept them from worrying too much: “I think our naïveté helped us get through a lot of stuff that probably would have crushed many people.”
They also chat a good bit about shooting in Utah, at one point sharing a valley with “a dinosaur excavation,” a group of researchers testing Mars Rover designs, and another living in pods to simulate astronauts in a Mars base camp. “But we were the ones doing God’s work,” Collins jokes.
What went wrong: Given the $250 million production budget, the filmmakers have no recourse to two of the three most common filmmaker complaints: lack of time and lack of money. In fact, they repeatedly chuckle over some of their expensive choices, like having a bridge built to get the cast and crew to a remote area, or keeping a huge team of Italian shoemakers on hand just to churn out boots. At one point, Stanton says that halfway through the shoot, he realized that on a production this big, everyone had to be ready at every moment for anything the director demanded, so he got “drunk with power” and abruptly demanded a couple of chickens for a scene he was shooting. They arrived within 15 minutes. He and Collins describe his reaction as, “I want a pony!” “I want a cow, and a monkey! I want it now!… I want chickens and a pony and a bridge that takes me from the highway to that cliff!”