Disney’s John Carter brought me out of heckling retirement.
Too many Tharks on the dance floor
John Carter (not a princess, not of Mars) is a convoluted mess, but to my tastes a more palatable mess than, say, Avatar. It saves the cat and passes the Bechdel test. It has funnier bits, and its story failings are less infuriating (f’rinstance, John Carter doesn’t instantly tame a superbird and earn back everybody’s trust in the third act just ‘cos he is WAY AWESOMEST!!1one!)
Although he *can* spontaneously fly things
Also Stanton didn’t put boobs on the lady Tharks, and for that I am eternally grateful.
But it is because some morsels are so tasty that the gristle of confusion sticks my craw. It’s easy to criticize a hundred-year-old story chopped into a Disney script and puréed in the editing room. And that’s why I’m doing it.
They’re having an ab contest and everyone is winning
- Too many baddies. You got superpowered, shapeshifting, laser-beam-using Therns, chief among whom is Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who is sort of aloof but sort of not, and sort of meddling but sort of not. Then you got Sab Than (Dominic West), who rules a moving city that destroys other cities. We don’t see Sab Than do anything more villainous than the usual sanitized sci-fi battling, and due to he is McNulty it was difficult for me to understand he was a baddie until he curled his lip a few times. Even so, he seemed like the kind of baddie who would see the light later, or rebel against being a pawn in Matai Shang’s plan, or have his own motivation beyond “conquer shizz.” Nope. Meathead.
McNulty: Pants Optional
Which brings us to…
- Don’t know what the baddies want. There is a source of power called the “ninth ray.”
Mark StrongMatai has this. The Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), is hot on the trail of discovering it, because she is sciencey, which I enjoy. However, in order to prevent Dejah and the smarties from having this power, Matai… uh… gives it to McNultySab Than and the meatheads. Ostensibly this is because Matai’s people “have a plan for [Mars],” and the meatheads are easier to control.
Also Matai wants Sab Than to marry the princess so… uh… Matai can kill the princess later… to keep the smarties from having the power Sab Than already has.
I apologize for the live-action “Last Airbender” reminding I’m doing right now
Did I mention Matai is a superpowered shapeshifter telepath? Who can murder and destroy with his blue laser beams? Also he is corporeal and has no qualm about acting directly (Guardian of the Universe he ain’t.)
And what is his plan for Mars? Apparently it is to make the planet a wasteland full of meatheads. It’s hard to understand why he’s peeved with John Carter for messing up his perfect plan for… wasteland management.
My stance is there’s no need for the Therns at all. As Matai himself puts it, he has “no dog in this fight.” In general, it is probably prudent to figure out what characters don’t care about stuff and take them out.
- Don’t know what would happen if the baddies won. My John Carter heckling partner pointed this out. We never see, f’rinstance, the smoldering ruins of a city previously visited by Sab Than. This would be mighty handy for convincing the not-taking-sides John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) to take sides. Especially if he encountered a tableau of death that echoed the one he found in his own home on earth.
Did I mention John Carter has a dead wife and kid? No? Funny that hasn’t come up yet. Brings us to…
- Flashback backstory. This movie is about a meathead cavalryman who blunders onto and through Mars. He has zero diplomacy, zero reaction to baby Tharks, and he solves all his problems with jumping and stabbing. Which is fine. It is a perfectly valid arc for a hero to realize there is more to life than jumping and stabbing. (In the case of Conan the Barbarian, not even this is required.) His lone fatherly intuition — recognizing that one character must be another’s daughter — is 1) blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and 2) not clearly derived from the fact he was once a father, more than, say, he is just a person who ever interacted with other people ever.
But the compositing was Thark
Sidebar: to be believable, a fantasy world needs kids, trash and laundry.
Yet his previous life’s fridged wife and kid are literally shoehorned in, and I say “literally” because the only way this cut could exist was if a producer beat an editor over the head with a shoehorn. Surely somewhere in development a version of this movie existed where the wife and kid were introduced, enjoyed, and then fridged. Then John Carter would be a grieving family man (and this would not be a Disney movie). But all his choices are informed by “meathead” and not by “grieving family man,” so why bother?
Now, ostensibly his wife and child were killed by… something… because he chose sides… or something… so that’s why he refuses to choose sides on Mars. This isn’t really explored (no “with great power comes great responsibility”) and doesn’t pay off (he doesn’t change his mind because he sees the consequences of indifference; he changes his mind because he has a supercrush on Princess Dejah. Which is fine.)
It’s like if you took Gladiator, removed the family prologue but left in all the flashbacks. And then the people who killed Russell Crowe’s family had nothing to do with the rest of the movie. And then you took out the stuff with Richard Harris because it was too slow. And then Joaquin Phoenix was two characters. BLARG.
Sh. I’m having a flashback.
- Why was a Thern on earth? John Carter gets zapped to Mars because a Thern shows up (randomly) in a cave on earth (and John Carter kills him). For the superpowered, laser-beam-wielding, long-term-plotting Thern, isn’t earth a way tastier victual than wasteland Mars? Why was that one Thern there? Is he missed? Is there a consequence for his death? The Thern raises many boring, irrelevant questions like this. I would have preferred:
McNultySab Than has traveled to earth to kill John Carter — in an effort to thwart a prophecy. However he succeeds only in killing John Carter’s family (if one insists on leaving this bit in) and inadvertently opening the door for John Carter to get to Mars. All in one go, you get evil Sab Than, heroic John Carter and accessible Mars. Yeah, self-fulfilling-prophecy is a trope, but it works.
- (Suggested by my heckling partner:) With her science dabbling, Princess Dejah opens the portal between earth and Mars. Perhaps she sussed that someone on earth might be able to help her fight Sab Than. Perhaps she gathered together the energy to transport just one person, and this is her only shot. Maybe she even aimed for a scholar and ended up with a meathead. In any event, it leaves out the Therns and secures her relationship to John Carter.
- Not enough time with the romance. That is because there’s so much Thern and mythos and Mars religion to chug through, not much is left for actual plot-significant affection between John Carter and Princess Dejah. Even Neytiri got to teach Jake Sully how to shoot and ride and shizz. Here, Dejah reads him a wall, and then later she reads him a floor.
“By gelfling hand or else by none…”
Wasted opportunity! John Carter must be introduced to Martian food! Martian sanitation! Surely he will have wounds that must be lovingly tended, like Britta did Jeff’s on that Community episode I can’t Google ‘cos all I get is fanfic. Maybe Dejah might try to fight John Carter, to win him over by force. Even a little discussion about the aforementioned “with great power comes great responsibility” with a dash of “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Any deep thought at all for John Carter to chew on.
Sidebar: a fantasy script should not demand more than two made-up words per sentence.
So, yeah, reconstituting Edgar Rice Burroughs “A Princess of Mars” into a fully successful single sitting of movie would require ripping out major threads that would be missed, with hurt and confusion, by fans of the book. It would probably obviate the cool and fun and Thern-requiring narrative wrapper. It might require less Bryan Cranston, which is shocking to say aloud. And to me the movie that got made was not so bad as to warrant these desperate measures. But maybe future epic movies can take a leaf from this convoluted book and leave out the extra baddie who doesn’t care about things.