Let’s more carefully investigate exactly why John Carter didn’t work. What are the lessons learned from this?
Flashback and Voice Over
Not to overstate the obvious, but within the opening minutes of this $600mm trainwreck, there are two separate instances of voice over exposition, explaining the world. (Neither happens in the present, as related to the protagonist, so they’re both at arm’s length. This type of thing generally becomes confusing quickly.) Not to mention the entire story of our protagonist will be told in flashback. This is exactly why there is a flashing neon sign saying, “Beware the flashback!” and “Beware the voice over exposition!” Of course these devices can be used effectively so that they don’t emotionally alienate the audience, but these were not.
Let’s be clear: John Carter appeared to be a movie about a Mars adventure. That’s how it was marketed. Monsters and all. Sci-fi, action adventure. Within the first 15 minutes, we have not only sci-fi space wars — we also have a western complete with cowboys and indians and massive horse chase action sequence, and an old-timey period drama. What happened to the genre in this movie? Sci-fi space movie is not period London is not the Old West. Beware switching genres. Mixed genre movies can be done well, generally with 2 genres at most, but then all of the audience expectations for both genres must be fulfilled. It’s difficult to do.
It cannot be overstated that the audience needs to like and connect emotionally with a protagonist. At the movies, we’re paying good money to sit with that character and walk in their shoes for a couple of hours. To disregard this is a mistake. There was no effort made, none, zero, anywhere in the opening to try to make the protagonist sympathetic. They didn’t even bother casting a big name actor we know and love, which would have given the character some credibility. Moreover, I’d argue they actually tried to make us hate this guy. It makes no sense.
What was the theme??!!! Remember, as stated in the beginning, it’s supposed to be about “saving the planet.” Did any of the beats above thematically have to do with that? No. The subtext of your theme should drive every scene — tonally and otherwise, character arcs, plot — in your script!
The tone was disastrous. Part of this is they didn’t just stay solidly within the sci-fi genre — they tried to go to far afield with too many different elements that didn’t work. I think in the hopes of taking what is fundamentally serious, dark subject matter (dimensional warfare) and trying to make it more Disney and family friendly, they inserted some sequences that were perhaps supposed to be funny or more lighthearted. These were generally of a slapstick nature, but they feel forced and they’re not funny. Slapstick and graphic violence isn’t generally a natural mix. Neither fit automatically into sci-fi (not to mention western!), unless it’s a comedy, which this was not. It’s unfortunate that someone didn’t identify before they spent all the money that there were tonal problems.
Other items of note:
For a project of this caliber, I was curious why there were no stars of note in either the lead male or female roles.
And because it’s set on Mars, “the red planet,” everything in the Mars sequences is reddish. It wasn’t visually interesting, there wasn’t enough contrast. I get it, Mars is the red planet, but we here on earth are “the blue planet” — it doesn’t mean everything here is blue all the time. I don’t think it was a creative interpretation.
And it was waaaaayyyyyy too long. I’d venture mostly because all the beginning beats were utterly wasted.