Sunday 22 January 2012

John Carter Preview - Out Of This World!

With its release date now a mere couple of months away, Disney held a special preview event in London a few days ago for their new blockbuster John Carter. While the film is not completed quite yet (with director Andrew Stanton not being present at the event, on the account of him being busy finishing it!), we were treated to a few clips from the film, a new trailer as well as a Q&A with star Taylor Kitsch and a couple of special effects specialists who worked on the film. I have had a good feeling about this film ever since the first trailer was released and all I saw more than confirmed that we should really get excited about this!

First of all one of the producers also present talked us through the genesis of John Carter, which is adapted from a serie of books from Tarzan writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, and which were said to be the closest things to comic books at the time (they were first published in the 1910's!). There certainly seems to be a rich mythology and plenty of storylines for a potential franchise, should this one be a hit.

We were shown five clips taken throughout the film. An early one shows John Carter on Earth as a feisty soldier who doesn't take authority kindly, a scene that shows plenty of potential for a solid dose of humour. Another one shows him on Mars, where the different gravity allows him to leap up in the air, all while meeting up with the local, slightly hostile populace. Later on, we see him in some sort of Roman arena, figthing up not just one but two massive beasts, some sort of giant yetis that look mightily impressive. And in a clip that takes place much later in the story, he single-handedly takes on an army of alien baddies, leaping up in the air and slicing his way through the whole lot, while some paralel editing shows an earlier personal tragedy that took place on Earth.

During the Q&A, the challenge that the film faces of being compared to Avatar and countless sci-fi films which came before it was evoked. This is ironic considering that the books the film are based on are the source that laid on many of the foundations for modern sci-fi, and indeed Avatar is the one film that owes a lot to the John Carter serie of books. When asked how the team had faced this challenge, the producer stated that they just did not think about it, feeling their material was strong enough to work by itself.

Ironically for a film laden with special effects, one of the most effective decision was to shoot in natural settings as much as possible, namely the Utah desert, looking suitably other-worldly. And the producer confirmed that this decision was made to give it a more realistic look. With the footage we were shown, he was absolutely right. The natural beauty of the surroundings the film was shot it (only slightly digitally altered in parts to give it more of an alien world feel), gives it an epic sense of scale that modern special effects still struggle to recreate.

But realistic is perhaps not the right word, given that the Mars of the film is not even red and feature a breathable atmosphere and green aliens!  It has been obvious from the start however that John Carter was not going to be a by-the-number CGI-borefest sci-fi that get churned out by studios, with their identical set/costume design. It had to be faithful to the artwork cover of the books, a style that is reminiscent of many sci-fi book covers and early comics from the first half of the 20th century . Let's just say it works perfectly well in the context, with the producer having found a perfect way of describing their goal: they made it look like a stylised version of a period Mars, the way it was seen when the books were written.

John Carter is the first live-action film from Andrew Stanton, the oscar-winning director of Wall-E, and all the team was unanimous in their praise for his perfectionism and his attention to details. It sounded like he had a perfectly clear idea of what he wanted, no matter what questions they were throwing at him. And more importantly, they all insisted on how reliant he was on the story. Be it Taylor Kitsch or the special effects team, they all emphasised how careful he was not to have the story overshadowed by all the expensive effects. Interestingly, it will be the second time within a few months that we will be seeing a live-action film from a Pixar director, after Brad Bird and his surprisingly good Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

Taylor Kitsch who takes on the lead part, was attending and has gone the same undeniabe presence in person as he has on film. Having made a big impact in the small part of Gambit in the woeful Wolverine (and sadly talks of a spin-off for his characters have quited down), here he brings in his own very seductive and complex magnetism, that bodes well for a character.

Finally, we were shown the latest trailer that had been released online last month, but in 3D this time. The first trailer was enticing enough without revealing too much but this new one is absolutely fantastic, action-heavy, epic, and confirming that the 3D post-conversion has been very well handled.

Of course, all the best intentions in the world are not always sufficient to make a great film, and John Carter has several challenges. But in the light of what I saw this evening, my already high expectations have shot up dramatically!

John Carter is out on the 9th of March in the US and the UK.

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