Okay, time for another rant about movies. I know, this is a writing blog and I keep talking about films. But really, if you want to learn how to write tight, self-contained, highly visual stories, then study screen writing. Good screen writing, that is. And there seems to be less and less of that out there these days, at least in the realm of Hollywood.
CAUTION! THIS ENTRY MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!
I recently had the dubious pleasure of viewing John Carter and Green Lantern. Aside from having a pulp fiction background and a male protagonist sent into space, these two movies might appear to have little in common. But actually, they have a lot in common. They suck. They don’t suck so bad that they are unwatchable, but with such rich source material it’s almost a crime how not-good they turned out. The visuals are excellent (as always, with the benefits of CGI) and the acting wasn’t horrible (although Carter and Dejah Thoris had no chemistry whatsoever, which made their romantic scenes laughable), but the screen plays were unfocused and muddled, like no one could decide exactly what movie they wanted to make. There were actually several similarities between John Carter and Green Lantern that probably contributed to their dramatic failure:
1) TOO MANY SCRIPT WRITERS
John Carter had three screen writers: Andrew Stanton (also the director), Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon. Green Lantern had four: Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldberg. Frankly, I think you shouldn’t have more than two people working on a script because you get in each other’s way. Too many pet ideas get thrown into the mix, people get territorial, and the whole thing dissolves into a mess of goo. Maybe it’s just because I don’t collaborate well, but I think that a single vision needs to dominate in something as short and visual as a movie. Obviously there should also be some outside oversight so that the script writer doesn’t go so far into their head that the audience can’t follow what’s going on. Still, a movie doesn’t allow for as much wiggle room as a novel. You can’t have half a dozen subplots and a cast of a hundred and one main characters in a movie.
2) REVEALING THE BIG BAD AT THE BEGINNING
I actually watched John Carter first, already knowing it wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. I tried giving the benefit of the doubt, but barely managed to get through the film without hurling a chair through the TV. Then I watched Green Lantern and nearly did the same thing. I thought, “No. No way. Two different movies with different writers, directors, and cast made the same mistake?” Both movies begin with a history lesson (of Barsoomian conflict or the GL Corps) and show the main villains almost immediately. We’re not five minutes into the film, and already we know that John Carter is going to have to defeat the Therns to save Mars and Hal Jordan is going to have to defeat a giant octopus-shaped cloud of smoke called Parallax. There is no mystery, no build-up, no wondering about who the enemy is or how they can be defeated. It renders Sinestro’s plea to the Guardians for information laughable because, hey! We (the audience) already know what’s going on, why are you Lanterns so slow? It turns what should be suspense and drama into a yawn-fest. Not to mention insulting the intelligence of the audience by assuming they won’t be interested without a massive bang. As a friend once said, “What’s the point of staying for the strip tease when the shirt came off before the dance started?”
3) UNNECESSARY SECONDARY VILLIANS
Which brings me to my next point: by revealing the big bad at the beginning, the secondary villains, Kantos Kan (JC) and Hector Hammond (GL), are rendered useless. They possess no threat, no sense of menace because we already know they are puppets. They are pitiful at best, annoying at worst. They muddy the waters and take what could have been a cool reveal (spending most of the time fighting them, thinking they are the big bad only to find out, oops, wait, there’s something worse out there!) and rendering it impotent.
4) TOO MUCH TIME SPENT ON EARTH
Earth is my home, and I do like living here. But when you have a cavalryman teleported to Mars and an intergalactic police corps of guys in skin tight green suits…sorry, but I want to spend the majority of my screen time out in space exploring places completely alien to me. It takes John Carter nearly 20 minutes to leave for Mars and Hal Jordan spends a huge amount of green gas commuting. I think the total amount of time spent with the Corps on Oa or in space was a grand total of 20 minutes. Sound like a rip off to you? I sure wasn’t impressed. I wanted to see the Green Lanterns kicking butt out in space, not Hal moping around on Earth. And I really don’t need Carter’s life story of angst and woe (which isn’t even present in the books) shoved down my throat before I get to see the Thark society on Barsoom.
5) MAJOR LACK OF FOCUS
I think that having multiple screen writers on each movie really diluted the vision and left the viewers with a shoddy product. So many things in both movies either don’t make sense or hinge on extreme coincidence. John Carter is mostly the former and Green Lantern the latter. John Carter suffers from poor science continuity (the flyers have solar panels, but they fly at night?), inconsistency (the Tharks hate flying, but they magically learn to fly massive fliers in the nick of time?), frustrating audience expectations (kept waiting for a massive battle and never got one), and the unnecessary inclusion of the Therns. The Therns weren’t even IN the first book, and they were a corrupt cult of priests, not a group of all-powerful shapeshifters who, for some inexplicable reason, enjoying toying with the political structure of other planets. Green Lantern had a massive “But why didn’t they just…?” moment at the end of the disappointingly short and anti-climatic battle between Hal Jordan and Parallax, but most of the movie had a lot of coincidences that didn’t seem to add up right. Like, how did Hal know to go to that hanger bay where Hector had Carol captive? That could be explained away by the ring, but the ring being a homing beacon for trouble was never very clearly stated. The entire thing lacked heart and felt very rushed because they tried packing too much into one movie. Not only did Hal Jordan’s origins as a Lantern have to be addressed, but they also had to threaten the world. Really? Why can’t superheroes and Virginians start off a little smaller in scale? Why can’t they have a few grand adventures before the world ends up on the wrong side of a hand grenade? I think it’s a massive failing of a lot of modern movies that the world always has to be in danger of annihilation before they think the audience will be invested. They lose sight of the fact that compelling characters carry the story more than the explosions and fancy CGI.
Now I suggest that you purge yourself of this Hollywood drivel by reading A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and watching Green Lantern: The Animated Series. Trust me; both are worlds better than their recent big screen adaptations.
Have a wonderful Independence Day!