A Science Fictional Year: Avatar, John Carter, Prometheus

John Carter (2012)


I’m aware these are based on novels written by the guy who wrote Tarzan, but that’s the extent of any pre-knowledge walking into this. Oh, and about five years before this movie got made, 30 Rock’s Dotcom pitched an imaginary John Carter of Mars script to Tracy Jordan. I can’t even remember if I ever saw a trailer for this, but I do remember seeing reviews. Apparently, this movie was to herald a new creative direction for Disney (instead of adapting old public domain fairy tales, they would begin adapting public domain novels. Apparently.) but was as disappointing as Mars Needs Moms. But my friend, the one I saw Avatar with, says he loves this movie. I’m still waiting to hear why. No, literally: I sent him an e-mail asking him why he liked it. I’m waiting to hear back.

Mostly, the movie was impenetrably confusing. This is when I learned that my concentration face looks like my anger face. Somewhere during the scene where the red-red guys are shooting the blue-red guys down over the bug people, my wife asked, “Are you OK? You look really mad.” “No,” I replied, “I’m just trying to figure out what the hell is happening and if it matters.”

I’m trying my hardest to stay away from review territory, but it’s difficult when I feel baffled by a movie’s content. It needed maybe one or two fewer cold opens, one entire subplot excised, the ending made sense of, and the action streamlined. It had that Hobbit problem in that I often couldn’t tell the significance of any one fight: they all blurred together.  No one fight being much more important than any other. And when John Carter married the Princess, I booed at my TV. I knew it was coming (much like Jake Sully mashing hair penises with the Na’vi), but was overwhelmed by its clumsiness and hamminess despite knowing it was on the horizon.

It’s also hard to tell if it’s science fiction or not. In England, they have a genre called “space fantasy” in which a story takes place in space and has science fictional elements (robots, spaceships, aliens), but the story is under no obligation to account for the actual functioning of those elements. I think this story is actually space fantasy (Star Wars is definitely space fantasy), which makes it harder to judge in terms of the transcendence concept I’m currently wedded too. Certainly the Therns (“There’s no such thing as Therns. Therns are mythology.” Then what the hell are you? You might as well be a Thern!) allude to transcendence, but like Avatar, the one thing that could be the most fascinating is the most brushed over. It’s obvious Disney thought they were going to open up a whole can of franchise on this.

Sometimes why a movie gets made makes sense: Avatar exists in a time when people feel largely helpless as corporations and the military industrial complex wheedles about the planet unfettered by what people actually think. The movie becomes a reaction to and an exploration of that phenomena. But, like Fern Gully, it veers toward fairy tale since it has a happy resolution. John Carter IS fairy tale with science fiction’s hat, but it’s hard to figure out why it exists. What’s the message of John Carter? In some ways, it echoes modern fears about banking and secret elites in that the Therns “don’t cause civilizations to collapse, just control how they collapse.” Unfortunate for us that John Carter feels as unmotivated to find out what that means as if the Thern had just said, “I don’t care for crunchy tacos.”

And perhaps that’s where I and this movie struggle so hard. I’m willing to put up with a lot of incoherence (as Prometheus will soon attest) if I feel like someone’s telling me something. I will be Dr. House to a movie’s Broca’s Aphasia if I can tell the incoherent mumbles translate to something in the world of ideas. This movie seems to be made for video games in that the story has  “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” pacing, and often that pacing doesn’t yield much for ideas.

click page 3 below to see my thoughts on Prometheus


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jh montgomery

I'm a guy with opinions. Some of those are about science fiction. Like a voice shouting into a hurricane of voices, I write about science fiction for Hush Comics. I grew up watching the original Star Trek with my mom in our basement. I have shockingly few memories of it, apart from the silver and gray grid covered VHS boxes old Star Trek tapes came in, but it left it's mark forever. My first memory of being in a movie theater was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. A group entered dressed as the crew of Star Trek, acting the part (the man dressed in Vulcan robes addressing the man with a middle-aged lesbian perm as captain). I nearly lost my mind with the excitement of sharing a theater with Leonard Nimoy. No no, my mom would tell me: that's someone dressing up. Impossible. Later, I would walk in on my parents watching the wrong movie at the wrong moment and be mortally terrified of alien abductions from the age of eight to thirteen. This fear was so strong, I couldn't watch the X-Files until it came to Netflix. As a teenager, hearing the theme song coming from another room in the house would give me anxiety. Science fiction, at its best is the pursuit, and evolution, toward transcendance: cultural, technological, spiritual. Transcendance marked me early, and forever.

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