What went so wrong with John Carter? Well, let’s look at the beats.
Here’s a basic breakdown of the beats of Act 1.
1. Open on Mars with the space wars going on. Fast and furious voice over exposition (ruh roh), with lots of new Martian pronouns (impossible to follow). The voice tells us that one tribe of Martians are fighting, “draining Barsoom (Mars) of energy and life.” Another tribe is under attack (obviously we will come to know them as the good people). Massive very desert-red space battle scene with flying ships (these ships actually approximate sea ships but in the air).
2. Sudden battle freeze mid-sky and random other-dimensional space demons (bad guys, they look sort of like priests) float down. The leader of the Martian bad guys is given a special weapon from their dimension and informed, “We serve The Goddess, and she has chosen you to receive this weapon. Do as we command and you will rule all of Barsoom with none to defy you.”
3. Roll credits (Minute 4)
4. Title tells us we’re now in NYC, 1881. Some guy (John Carter?) is walking around on the street in the rain dodging people with their umbrellas. We know we’re not in any old period drama because of the “thrilling” orchestral score! He’s trying to lose someone following him. He sends a telegram (“Ned, see me at once”). He informs us of his name. The man following him now watches from outside.
5. Young man on train holds the telegram. (Min 5) The Butler meets him at the station with sad tidings. We return to JC’s mansion estate where Ned is met by JC’s attorney, who offers his “deepest sympathies.” “His death came as a shock to all of us.” He dropped dead not five minutes after sending word for him and the doctor. Ned is surprised to see In his house it’s a collection of treasures from every corner of the globe. It seemed he was looking for something. Ned asks to see the body, but apparently JC locked himself inside his crypt. Ned is willed the estate, and he is gifted with his private journal. He begins reading the journal (fantastic, more voice over). JC begins to tell his story (and we flashback to):
6. (Min 11) Arizona territory: 1868. We track JC on horseback. Rough conditions. He is going to buy supplies in town. Apparently everyone in town hates him; they’re all hostile towards him (which turns to violence). He doesn’t pay his bills. There is a violent exchange, and JC produces a piece of gold. Then soldiers come to take him, and again he moves violently on them.
7. (Min 12) he wakes up in the custody of the Confederate Army. He was a deserter, and they’ve been tracking him. Quick cuts: Three more times he violently fights to escape the law, and JC refuses to fight. He says, “whatever it is you suppose I owe our country, I’ve paid in full,” insert cut of his 2 wedding rings. Dream cut with his (dead) wife. Another violent exchange and he escapes.
8. JC steals horse and is off into the desert. Big western horse riding action sequence. Uh oh! Indians block their way. JC coincidentally speaks the local language. Massive shoot out.
9. JC takes refuge in a cave, where (of course) he triggers the special dimensional portal and the universal master baddie teleports in. There is a fight (the baddie tries to kill him with his magic blue glowing knife!) but JC shoots him and !kapow! he’s teleported to Mars with the special magic medallion.
Monica’s Response to the Beats:
Sequence 1 Response: We are told that the (active) story (ie, main plot) will be about fighting to save the planet Mars, which is being drained of its energy and life … however, that isn’t exactly what the plot is about, so that’s confusing. This entire opening was confusing. It was way too much-too soon-too fast exposition unrelated to our protagonist and also unrelated to his emotional journey. Quite frankly, it would have been more impactful to open with the death of his wife. (Note: The best way to introduce tons of new information is to have us meet the world THROUGH the eyes of our protagonist. In theory, if we care about him, then we will care about the new information he’s learning.)
Sequence 2 Response: Hm. Not only have we been introduced in the last 3 minutes to a new planet, various warring clans of strange peoples, but now a totally different dimensional alien race is introduced as the “puppet masters” of the universe. Do I care about any of this? No. Have we met our protagonist, John Carter? No. What’s the emotional connection to any of this? F if I know. Everything is too much at arm’s length, there’s nothing to connect to. Do we care at all that there is a bad guy now being controlled by another, unrelated bad guy? No.
Sequence 4 Response: OMFG now we’re in a period piece in jolly old England in the 1700s??!!! Wait, what? Black umbrellas and gas lamps? Come the F on. A nondescript man running around in a sea of black and brown doesn’t tell us anything about him. Nothing sympathetic was given to us; he was equivalent to all the other characters we’re getting and who cares. They dropped the ball on giving us a great introductory scene with the protagonist where we fall in love with him and want him to win.
Sequence 5 Response: I’ll just note here that when I first watched this, I had no idea who these people were or what the hell was going on. I was very confused. It’s a lot clearer watching it again. The timeline is confusing: was that JC scene in the past, in the present, what’s going on? Ned is like, “what the hell,” and that’s a bit how I’m feeling watching this. But OOH, there’s a mysterious journal! In reading the journal, we get JC’s story! No overplayed tropes here!
Sequence 6 Response: And suddenly we’re on horseback in the Old West??? Again, I’m feeling like what the hell is going ON here? I’m also going to note: it’s 11!!!!! minutes into the movie and we haven’t properly met the protagonist. We have quickly and briefly met a LOT of characters whom we could give 2 shits about. JC is just one of a massive pile. When we meet him again, he is combative, creepy and decidedly unsympathetic. I’m not rooting for him; I don’t care about him at all. (And when we see his face maybe for the first time he is unattractive and looks absurd in a horrible fake mountain-molesto beard and mustache with terrible lighting. Who is this guy????)
Sequence 7 Response: What am I supposed to have learned about our protagonist from this? He’s a fuckup asshole? He has no respect for authority? He is a master of self sabotage? Maybe he has mental problems. The fact that I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel about the protagonist (other than dislike) means all of these beats are an epic fail.
Keep in mind this is supposed to be a sci-fi fantasy romp!!! So I have no idea what the hell this bullshit is.
Anyway, bottom line: I’m not sure what they want me to understand about the protagonist, and whatever it is, I could care less because he’s a dick.
Sequence 8 Response: Again, this is supposed to be a movie about MARS. Why on earth are we in a massive shootout horse chase and war scene with cowboys and Indians? Now we’re in a western??? What?!
Sequence 9 Response: Whoops, of course now we’re in the “genie in the bottle” magical coincidence movie (which, by the way, in general I intensely dislike these kinds of movies). Um? Of course of all the caves in the world, because there is a shootout, he just magically stumbles into the one with the magic dimensional portal. And exactly at that moment the dimensional Alien comes through. That makes perfect sense.