Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Carter of Earth, Mars, Pandora, Dancing With Wolves, and Middle Earth.

Just returned from watching Disney's "John Carter", based on Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian Chronicles books. Full disclosure - as a kid I devoured those novels, so I was not fazed in the slightest by the setting, the outdated premise, or the character names. Also, this will not be a comprehensive review, but rather a semi-rant about the plot follies - and I don't mean plot holes (there are aplenty), but rather the problems with the way the plot was written and developed.

Every story needs a plot. Most also require at least one subplot. Sometimes an author can deftly weave many subplots together and pull it off. Sometimes the work is dragged down by the weight of needless subplots into the bog of mediocrity. Sadly "John Carter" is a prime example of this. Let's get the good stuff out of the way - the movie is very pretty, the computer graphics are superb and are blatantly obvious in only a couple of scenes, the supporting cast is superb (seeing Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony from HBO's "Rome" series on a big screen was awesome), the male and female leads do a good job of looking pretty and heroic and convincing, the art direction and design are excellent, and the action scenes are competent.

Where the film fails is in the needlessly muddled plot and various subplots that bring the movie to needlessly tedious 2+ hours. The original Martian Chronicles were by no means subtle - the villains were villains, the heroes were heroes, the conflict was obvious, and it was all about rousing action, exotic vistas, nubile Martians, dastardly bad guys, and subtly effective humour. In other words, what Star Wars (heavily based on Martian Chronicles) and other (better) movies are made of. The film needlessly complicates the plot in many different ways. As all English teachers drone on from year to year - every story needs a conflict. Conflict is what creates a story. Otherwise nothing would happen. Let's count the conflicts in the Disney version (working from memory here):
- John Carter vs. mysterious aliens
- John Carter vs. savage yet somehow noble aliens
- John Carter vs. human-looking aliens
- John Carter vs. his troubled past and his guilt over losing his family
- John Carter vs. the United States of America
- John Carter vs. a scheming alien princess
- John Carter vs. himself (in this case over where he truly belongs - on Earth or Mars)
- John Carter involving his nephew in an improbable *REDACTED FOR SPOILERS*
- John Carter vs. giant apes
- John Carter vs. gravity
- Alien dude and his daughter vs. their tribe
- Alien princess vs. her father
- Alien princess vs. bad guy
- A three-way alien war
- Mysterious aliens vs. just about everyone else

OK, obviously some of these get resolved in a scene or two, but quite a few of these drag on for most of the movie, and are mostly irrelevant to the story as a whole or its resolution! Most of the subplots in "John Carter" do not move the main plot along, instead they meander away from it, slow down the film, confuse the audience, and are either dropped or resolved so abruptly that they might not have even happened in the first place.

The subplots seemed to have two major purposes in this film, the first being a justification for action scenes. Personally I thought the main plot - even if trimmed - would have provided plenty of opportunities for action scenes on its own, and probably would have provided opportunities for the same exact action scenes minus the time spent on developing and explaining the subplot. The second purpose was to cut away from the main action, give the supporting cast more screen time and give the main heroes more chances to whine about something. The result, however, is the needless increase in length, an actual decrease in tension (if the audience is fidgeting or falling asleep, chances are they will be confused once the main plot kicks back in), and angst. OK, I get it, nowadays having a straight-cut hero with little to no emotional baggage verges on a parody, but come on! In an action adventure flick like this one we want to see the heroes (and heroines - Deja Toris kicks serious butt in the film) act heroically not brood, self-recriminate, doubt themselves, and gush with insecurity (or at least not for very long). Leave all these things to the Prince of Denmark.

Anyway, the rant is pretty much over. "John Carter" is a film that would be enhanced by removing scenes, rather than adding more deleted scenes. I almost hope to see a DVD version of it that will actually redact the movie!