In the genre of 3D outer space shoot-’em-ups, there are two ways to go: Either you’ve got your humans ruthlessly exploiting oddly shaped locals on some distant planet, or vice versa. John Carter chooses the less common scenario, an Earthling being used and abused by aliens for their own purposes, while the defending champion Avatar presents a classic story of corporate greed morphing into cultural affinity.
In both cases, the plots are well worn to the point of being hackneyed. Both films rely on visual thrills, special effects and a willing suspension of disbelief to create fantasy worlds in the same way that cheesy ’50s matinees did back in the day before effects were so sophisticated. These are bigger than life stories with bigger than big budgets. Avatar, as we know, went on to take in more box office gross worldwide than any movie before or since. John Carter is clearly aiming for the same lofty territory.
Will it get close? Who knows? But this is about art, not commerce, and when two mammoth worlds collide, only one species can come out on top.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran from Virginia. A man who “never really came back from the war,” he now spends his time hunting for treasure in the mountains of Arizona. While fleeing some Apaches and lawmen who are pursuing him, he comes across a sacred cave of gold. Before he has time to revel in his find, he is attacked by a strange, bald and slightly glowing man (we’ll learn later, he’s called a Thern). Carter manages to kill his attacker, but he is knocked out in the process.
When he wakes up, he finds himself of Mars, which is in the midst of its own civil war between two humanoid clans—the Zodangans, the bad guys in red; and the Heliumites, the good guys in blue (draw what political conclusions you will). Then there are the Tharks, led by Tar Tarkas (a severely motion-captured Willem Dafoe)—green-skinned, two-horned, four-armed, fifteen-foot-tall warriors who refuse to take part in the war. They capture Carter with the hope of using him as a weapon—because of the change in gravity, he is much stronger than he was on Earth and able to leap great distances in a single bound. After a chance encounter with the beautiful Helumite Princess Deja (Lynn Collins), Carter must choose between fighting alongside the Heliumites or finding a way back home.
After his twin brother dies, paraplegic former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes his place in a mission to the distant planet Pandora. Pandora is a planet rich in a rare fuel called Unobtainium (no, really), which the greedy Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is intent on finding. Jake learns that Parker plans on driving out the indigenous population of humanoids called the Na’vi in order to mine the material buried deep within their home turf.
The muscle-headed Colonel Quatrich (Stephen Lang) promises Jake that if he helps infiltrate the Na’vi and gather intel, he’ll get his legs back when he gets home. By virtue of the Avatar technology, Jake is able to immerse himself in the the Na’vi’s world, quickly falling in love with the beautiful Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
Meanwhile, the restless Parker and ruthless Colonel go ahead with their plans for destroying the Na’vi’s home, forcing Jake to choose which side he’s on.
John Carter is based on a famous sci-fi series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and has all the necessary ingredients to be a huge blockbuster hit—Martian feuds, romance and thrilling action sequences. The problem is, we’ve seen it all before. In fact, if this film were to aim any lower, even the lead actor’s name would have to be Kitsch. Oh wait, it is.
While Burroughs’ work has inspired countless sci-fi writers and filmmakers (including, clearly, Avatar’s James Cameron), it took nearly 80 years for it to make its big screen debut. Director Andrew Stanton, working from a script he wrote with Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon, does a somewhat decent job navigating the dense plot, but it still feels quite convoluted in places. The pace is so fast that we’re never really given a chance to catch up and figure out what’s happening on screen, let alone who is who.
Avatar suffers from similarly dreadful plotting. There’s no denying the impressive visual effects and technological advancements made in Avatar, but when it comes to plot, we’re essentially back to Dances with Wolves or a live-action version of Fern Gully with heavy artillery.
When it comes down to it, neither film is about character or plot. Both boast a whole menagerie of exotic creatures and sweeping landscapes, though in John Carter, Mars is shown as a desolate wasteland, a far cry from the breathtaking and meticulously detailed visuals of the forests of Pandora. And how about that motion capture? Cameron uses it better than anyone by far, and that includes John Carter’s Stanton. His Na’vi may not have the most depth of character, but at least you can tell them apart visually, which is often more than can be said about the Martians of John Carter—even when played by such actors as Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton.
While the Edgar Rice Burroughs character of John Carter is widely acknowledged to be the forefather of our own generation’s crop of space cowboy heroes, the film is held back by an overly convoluted plot and clunky dialogue. Avatar suffers from it’s own structural deficiencies but despite being the earlier of the two films, it manages to better evoke an alien world of beauty and ultimate possibility. I wish the dialogue and characters were as imaginatively rendered as the world of Pandora, but even without that depth, Avatar remains our champion.