Friday, March 09, 2012

Musing Pictures: John Carter

Andrew Stanton's John Carter isn't as good or as bad as people say. It feels like one film that wanted to be several -- it is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars", but it is also an adaptation of all of ERB's books about Carter, the planet Barsoom, and the characters that populate it. It falls in to the pit that many first-in-a-series films ("tentpoles" is what the industry calls them) stumble upon: It tries to cover too much, resulting in thin, expository and often insufficient narrative.

The first film in a series has a lot to accomplish: It must introduce the characters (whereas subsequent films don't feel that pressure), and in some cases such as this, it must introduce an entire world, with its politics, shifting alliances, and even laws of physics.

Laying the groundwork like that is a difficult business, which is why most first-in-a-series films tend to be a little weak (the first "Harry Potter" film comes to mind, as does the first "Lord of the Rings" film, which is wonderful, but a little cumbersome).

I look at "Star Wars" as a good example of a first-in-a-series film that introduces its characters and universe effectively. I attribute this, in part, to the fact that Lucas had no idea if there would be enough of a following to justify a continuation of the story -- he had to make the first film good enough that it would merit a second, and a third... "Harry Potter", "Lord of the Rings" and yes, even "John Carter" were all but guaranteed that their stories would have more time to unfold.

In "Star Wars", anything "alien" is cast in profoundly basic, human terms: The Force and The Dark Side are, quite simply, Good and Evil. Although there are complex politics within the Rebellion and the Empire, the first film presents them quite simply as "good guys" and "bad guys". If we want to understand the politics more, we pick up on the details over time. In the meantime, the characters and their personal journeys take precedence, which makes the film engaging, exciting, and fun.

The real secret here, of course, is that the characters themselves fit very classical, defined "types", so we don't even need to get to know them at all. We recognize the short-hand, and the story can continue on its way. "John Carter" spends too much time filling us in on details that may be interesting, but that we don't need to know. John Carter is a hero, of course, and he's reluctant to be a hero, but a lot of attention is given to his tragic past, to try to justify his reluctance, when, really, he's just that type of guy -- let the justification come out some other time, when it's really relevant, perhaps in a subsequent film!

The trouble with adapting the John Carter stories is that they don't have the usual "Good guys/bad guys" structure, which means the usual pieces of narrative shorthand are harder to use. That said, they're often quite clear within each particular moment, and as long as we can track the shifts from one scene to the next, and as long as we can track John Carter's perceptions of who's "good" and who's "bad", we should be all right.

I think that's why so many reviewers found the film "confusing". It tries too hard to explain too much, and ends up diluting the really necessary exposition. We lose the important details in the sea of background information. The next "Carter" film could be quite different, as the pressure of introduction is off, and the narrative can take center stage.


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