With Best of Yakmala behind me (for the moment), we can return to a topic I know we all care about, John Carter (of Mars).
Don’t worry, I’m not reviewing the film. Instead, I’d like to talk about the tendency for our modern action heroes to refuse the Call to Adventure.
What’s the “Call to Adventure?” you might ask? Simple. It’s a screenwriting term for the moment when the protagonist (or “hero” in an action movie) is called upon by circumstances of plot to initiate an adventure. It might sound simple, but a lot of big popcorn movies nowadays seem to forget this important storytelling device. See, in a traditional action or adventure script, the Call to Adventure happens somewhere between 20-30 minutes into the film if its following the classic (and generally recommended for action films) three act structure. It’s Marty getting in the DeLorean to flee the terrorists. It’s John McClane shooting his first terrorist. It’s Luke seeing his guardians killed and choosing to join the terrorists.
While not every movie has to follow such strict guidelines, it tends to work if your underlying format is action/adventure. In fact, it’s downright necessary if your film is a pulp-inspired adventure piece like The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, or, I don’t know … JOHN FREAKING CARTER (OF MARS)!
And this is my primary problem with director Andrew Stanton’s attempt to bring John Carter (of Mars) to a new generation of fantasy and sci-fi fans: the character refuses the Call to Adventure. It’s kind of hard to make a thrilling adventure yarn when your main character actively refuses to be part of your movie and that’s what happens in John Carter. No less than five times, he is outright called to adventure and each time he says, “No, I want to go home!” Oh, he has his reasons, but they’re horseshit. In a sci-fi adventure film, the main character needs to be involved in the story, otherwise, why should the viewer care? It’s tantamount to a character shouting, “I’m bored!” during a quiet scene. It breaks the illusion.
In the film, Carter makes it clear he won’t fight anyone else’s war because war sucks and he just wants to go back to Earth and his cave of gold. While those are fine motivations that can generate plenty of conflict for the character, it’s his flat out refusal to be helpful in anyway that really stands out. It leads to a completely pointless excursion to an ancient temple that eats up 20 minutes of screentime. Yeah, the Princess of Mars learns some important words to help Carter get to Earth, but the key to making a picture like this work is pretty simple. I’ll illustrate it with the following playlet:
I need your help to save my city.
No! I want to go home to my cave of gold!
The only way home is in my city.
Okay, but I won’t help you.
If my city falls, you can never go home.
Then I guess I’m helping you.
Variations of the above exchange actually happen in the film except for the final two lines. To be honest, it’s quite baffling why Stanton and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon chose to have the answers be anywhere but the city of Helium. Chabon, with his pulp background, should know better. I suppose Stanton wanted to show more of the awe-inspiring Martian landscape, but that’s easy enough to do if the main characters are journeying to Helium and must pass all the key landmarks that the director desperately wanted to include in his passion project. A movie like this has to move in a forward direction at all times. Look at Star Wars — no, the real one — it is almost relentless in pushing forward from environment to environment. It is so damned effective that you never really notice how cheaply it’s all put together.
In contrast, John Carter moves in fits and stops. The title character even brings his journey to a halt at one point and starts going backward! The lack of momentum makes the audience uneasy and they will start to notice the seams, the CGI, or the cardboard performance of the young actor hoping to launch his big movie career.
Now, if this were just an isolated example, then we could just brush it aside as bad screenwriting, but let’s go back a few months to last summer’s Green Lantern.
No, really, stick with me here.
In almost every telling of Hal Jordan’s first moments with the magic wishing ring, the same sequence of events occur: Abin Sur crashes on Earth and commands his ring to find a successor. The ring locates Hal and transports him (usually in a flight simulator) to the crash site. Abin Sur gives him the ring and a few words of explanation before dying. Now on Hal’s finger, the ring makes his Lantern uniform appear. Hal realizes — to his delight — that he can fly without a plane and spends a few moments reveling in the first of his many new abilities.
What does Slab Riprock do in the movie? Call his ethnically diverse buddy to drive him away from the adventure. He doesn’t put the ring on until safely at home and even then nothing happens. The movie is half-way over by the time Hal gets to the Lantern planet and only spends a few minutes there before deciding he wants no part of the story.
Now take another look at Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve Rogers rushes headlong into a risky military experiment because he wants to be a man and give Jerry what-for. In fact, a lot of that film’s tension comes from the fact that he wants to fight, but the Army doesn’t believe in him. That is classic plotting and exactly how our action and sci-fi heroes should operate. They should want to be where the action is. Just imagine if Steve was an unwilling participant and doesn’t don his costume until the last twenty minutes of the film.
Or how about a version of Back to the Future in which Marty parks the DeLorean in the garage and frets about Doc being dead for an hour.
Or a version of Die Hard (staring Channing Tatum) in which John McClane refuses to kill a terrorist until the last reel.
While the main characters in John Carter, Green Lantern, the Clash of the Titans remake, and the Transformers films eventually become involved in their plots, their initial refusal of the Call to Adventure makes for an unsatisfying structure. This refusal is often paired up with the belief that it gives the character more depth and a strong redemptive arc when he finally decides to get involved. While studios might think we want “strong” character arcs in which selfish pricks learn to be better people, we really just want our heroes to realize something awesome is happening and enjoy it while punching terrorists and aliens on the nose (or beak), like a man.
Making action/adventure movies shouldn’t be rocket science. We have a handy, proven structure to work with and many lovely toys to realize our craziest ideas … but sadly, it seems, the modern movie has forgotten the primary way an adventure starts: our hero saying “I will!”