Double Feature Duels: John Carter vs. Avatar

A disgruntled soldier from Earth is on the run from his past when he winds up the key figure in a war on an alien world. Along the way, he encounters beautiful natives, uncompromising villains, and a strange new world the likes of which no one has ever seen before.

This is the promise made to us by… well, by a lot of movies. But today, it’s the promise made to us by the biggest financial success in movie history: James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s also the promise made by one of science fiction’s biggest flops, the recent John Carter. Sure, there’s a huge gulf in their box office totals, but which is the better movie? Find out in the second edition of Double Feature Duels.

We start the contest after the jump with…

The Planets:

Even now, it’s nearly impossible to bring up Avatar without some yahoo going on about what an incredible world James Cameron dreamed up — or, occasionally, somebody else complaining that he apparently colored the whole thing with a pack of highlighters.

Personally, I don’t get a whole lot of substance from the world of Pandora. Sure, it’s visually impressive, but there’s not any sense of culture, history, or even anything overtly alien. Everything has six legs and moves around a lot, but when you break it down we’re still looking at trees, flowers, wolves, panthers, and stereotypical primitives.

Admittedly, those dragon things are cool.

Speaking of those natives, one thing that’s always bugged me about this movie is how relentlessly Native American they act. The philosophy, language, rituals, and battle cries all seem pulled directly from a movie about the American West, not some planet we’ve never seen before. It makes the universe feel a bit small.

On top of that, we never get a real look at the Na’Vi culture. We see no industry, no economy, and no external relationships. There’s talk and glimpses of other tribes, but it’s unclear exactly how the dynamics of Pandora operate. Despite the alleged alienness of the planet, the complexities and nuances of the world are barely hinted at.

In John Carter, Mars truly feels like another world, despite the fact that two-thirds of the “aliens” are really just over-tanned Caucasians. There are three distinct societies on Mars — contrasted to Avatar’s lone tribe — and we get glimpses into the culture of each of them over the course of the story. The Tharks in particular feel wholly alien from the jump. Just watch as Carter comes across a nest of newly hatched Tharks and witnesses what happens to the eggs that don’t hatch quickly enough (spoiler alert: they get destroyed). This isn’t Earth, this isn’t America. We’re somewhere else.

Other than the further-developed cultural environment, Mars and Pandora are about equal. Mars doesn’t have any more interesting wildlife than Pandora does (though it does have considerably less). In fairness, Pandora is more striking than Mars. Its landscapes, flora, and even animals stick out more looking back on the movies. Though, I’ll happily take Woola over any of the creatures in Avatar. Anyway, John Carter takes this round.

The Characters:

As mentioned above, the main characters in Avatar and John Carter share a lot of similarities. Both have lost family, both don’t care about the armies they come from. And both are acted capably, if not brilliantly. Sam Worthington gives a better performance, I’d say, as he delivers a little bit more emotional honesty when the part requires his uncertainty or defiance. Taylor Kitsch hits hard, but plays a somewhat less complicated hero. His performance is mainly one of fire and charisma, as opposed to Worthington’s unsure heroics. Point to Avatar.

Another similarity between John Carter and Jake Sully: they both fall in love with native warrior princesses. Apparently being a hunky alien warrior from the heavens is the way to go. Anyway, how do these princesses stack up against one another? Other than in terms of hotness, I mean.

Court adjourned!

The main difference that I see between them is in the way they carry themselves. Avatar’s Neytiri is a damaged creature. Her sister was murdered and her people oppressed by invading humans. This wounded nature is capture pretty well in the movie, and her relationship with Sully is more strained than your typical action movie. An interesting wrinkle, but one that occasionally makes it hard to believe she falls for him as hard as she does.

Dejah, like Carter himself, is more traditionally charismatic. Their relationship is archetypal: they bicker and feud, eventually coming to a place of mutual respect. Despite this simplicity, her character comes off surprisingly lively, both in dialogue and action ones. Warrior princesses are nothing new under the sun, but rarely do they feel alive like Dejah does. Other than that virtue, there’s not much else to say. The ensemble casts in general follow this trend, with Avatar typically being the more dynamic but John Carter being infinitely more fun.

EXCEPT with regard to the villains. Avatar’s Quaritch is a total badass; a war-torn maniac whose sheer conviction almost sells the questionable decisions his character tends to make. John Carter’s bald-headed alien engineers are interesting, but too enigmatic to make much of an impact. Tell you what — I’ll grant villain points to Avatar, but the rest of the cast is a draw.

The VFX

Point to Avatar. Moving on…

The Story:

And here we are: Though evaluating the quality of a story is an exercise in hopeless subjectivity, I’ll give it a shot…

Avatar is undoubtedly the more “powerful” storyline, at least by all the typical standards. The stakes are higher, the hero undergoes a more dramatic change, and the movie as a whole just has more ZING to it. Why? Because it cheats.


You’ll notice the subtle indication that Sully will be a messiah later.

Take Jake Sully. In order to justify the path he takes through the movie, he has to be physically crippled by combat, lose all his family, leave his home (itself destroyed by human incompetence), wind up in a cartoonishly unfair military invasion, be lied to and manipulated, and have a girl alien fall in love with him because… um…

And even then, his betrayal of humanity can be hard to swallow. James Cameron is a career deck-stacker, and this movie is no different.

By contrast, John Carter’s (admittedly smaller) dramatic accomplishments feel more honestly won. I’ve gone over a lot of this already, but: Carter and Dejah have more chemistry from the start, the conflict has more variables affecting it, and the main character doesn’t have to turn his back on everybody he knows to justify the story’s conclusion. It’s a little difficult to discern the motives of the movie’s big bad guys… but they’re universe-molding aliens. Their motivations WOULD be elusive.

One further detail that I think lends John Carter’s ending more emotional resonance is the feeling of true love lost. The two movies actually end REALLY similarly, but John Carter’s is laced with just a tiny bit more ambiguity and unfinished business, and thus leaves more excitement hanging in the air when the credits roll. At least, to this viewer.

So, in other words, Avatar wins this race — but only by tripping the other contestants. Point to John Carter.

WINNER:

John Carter.

There you have it. One of the biggest flops in recent memory is arguably better than the biggest hit of all time. That said, some of the things that make it better to me are the exact reasons it wasn’t as big a success. John Carter feels more alien, it requires paying more attention to the mechanics of the plot, and it simply doesn’t reach for the low-hanging fruit as often as Avatar does.

I really do enjoy watching both movies, but what it comes down to is this: Avatar leaves me with lingering frustrations; the movie doesn’t quite live up to its potential and promise. John Carter, on the other hand, fulfills everything it sets out to do, and leaves me wanting more.

Disagree? I’m sure somebody will. Let it out in the comments so we can hear why.


21 Comments

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