I finally caught up with John Carter, the Disney megabomb that just cost its studio a $200 million write-down, which is a movie I’ve wanted to see for 50 years, ever since I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series of Barsoom novels (along with pretty much everything else he wrote) as a high-schooler. There are plenty of explanations why the film flopped, including a leading man who didn’t look a thing like John Carter, but the real reason is simple: The script didn’t work.
Yeah, I know: In Hollywood we always blame the writer whenever an egg is laid. But in this case, there’s good reason to point the Golden Turkey finger at the screenwriters: Andrew Stanton (the director) & Mark Andrews (the ampersand indicates they worked together) and Michael Chabon (the rewrite guy). Not because the script was bad — it had all the requisite action/adventure/romance bits in the right place — but because it got off to such a slow start, with not one, not two, but three back stories. Anyone who’s not a fan of the Burroughs books spent the first ten minutes or so wondering who the heck John Carter was and when was this movie going to start. Although the film redeemed itself handsomely by the end — the civilian audience I saw it with applauded at the credits — the damage had long since been done.
We opened on Mars with the villains, then cut to 1881 America, where we met the entirely irrelevant character of the young Burroughs himself at the sudden “death” of his uncle, then flashed back to post–Civil War Arizona where the eponymous hero, alive at last, is prospecting for gold and getting in dutch with members of the Seventh Cavalry. “Frames” are generally deadly things to put around action movies (the Kipling frame around The Man Who Would Be King is an exception); the audience wants maybe two minutes of expository running from Apaches, finding the cave and looking up at Mars and then, wham, we should be on Barsoom getting chased by big green guys with four arms, sharp swords, and a bad attitude. Then we meet the hot-chick princess, enlist in the service of Helium, fight the really bad guys, bring the green men and the red men together, win the girl, get teleported back to earth, and thus set up the sequels.
Don’t get me wrong: The writers didn’t set out to write a muddled mishmash. More than likely, somewhere in the development process worries set in that the audience wouldn’t “get” the set-up, would wonder how John Carter got to Mars in the first place; in the novels, as I recall, he just stares up at the Red Planet with longing in his soul and — bar-soom! — he’s there. Who cares how he did it? Where’s the lissome and lovely Dejah Thoris? Let’s get this party started!
Oh well. Doubt I can wait another half-century for Hollywood to get Barsoom right. Pity.