Why John Carter Sucks and Avatar is Awesome
My John Carter Experience
On a recent flight from San Francisco to Chicago I had my choice of movies, and decided to go with John Carter. I was actually curious about this movie to be honest, as I hadn’t heard much about it other than it was a flop. Not one of my friends said it was bad, usually when a movie isn’t good, your friends will warn you. I realize now it is probably because none of them saw it.
If you have never seen John Carter, don’t worry you are not alone. I wrote this article knowing that many people who read it have not seen both of these movies, and made sure it wouldn’t be a waste of your time.
So why didn’t anyone see it? Why was it a complete flop? I mean at had all of the elements of a successful movie. It’s not like John Carter never had a chance. For one, it had a higher budget than Avatar! It was produced by Walt Disney Pictures, and had access to all of the same resources. We are not talking about some little movie here, this movie was supposed to be a big deal.
If they are basically the same movie, then why was one so successful and the other not? This is what it is all about, and the answer is going to help you create work that is successful and not fall into the “John Carter Trap”.
Why would I say that Avatar and John Carter are the same movie? Let’s go through it.
Frame Story: Narrated by someone in the movie.
War Veteran finds himself on a strange new planet surrounded by dangerous creatures, he himself has changed, gaining new powers.
Man meets woman of an alien race. At first she doesn’t like him, but then sees something special about him and they fall in love.
A strange evil force descends on the planet bearing technology and weapons that are unfamiliar to the natives. They are no match for technology.
Man is made a part of the tribe, but some disagree with this decision, namely a warrior who is close to the leader.
Man joins with natives to defeat the enemy.
Man and alien woman are joined together, though his presence in this foreign land is threatened, as he is not native.
Movie is characterized by stunning computer graphics, distant planets, large and small aliens, new languages, a battle for resources, a love story, a narrative, an unknown lead actor, and over $230,000,000.00 budget.
This is a very rough synopsis of plot, and obviously there are details all along the way that are different between the movies, but at the core they are very similar.
Avatar: John Carter: Budget $237,000,000 Budget: $250,000,000 Revenue $2,782,275,172 Revenue $282,778,100
So why was one movie the highest grossing film of all time, and the other barely covered it’s cost?
The answer is very simple – emotion.
I felt an emotional attachment to the characters in Avatar, and nothing in John Carter.
I cared about the characters in Avatar because James Cameron took the time to develop them into real people, even if one of them was an alien. They had faults, they had inner strengths, they cared for each other and we cared for them. I wanted the good guys to succeed. I cried when a computer animated blue person lost her father! Without us caring for the characters in this movie, it would have flopped, guaranteed. People would have said the same things about it that they did about John Carter – “The special effects were great”.
I have come up with a quick “Do I Care?” Test – it is very easy and anyone can do it. All you have to do is imagine the character dying. Do you care?
At the end of John Carter I really didn’t care if any of the characters died. I have no emotional connection to them. The bad guy could have killed the good guy and made out with the lead girl, and I probably would have liked the movie even more.At the end of Avatar I would have killed the Colonel myself to keep Jake and Neytiri together.
So what can we learn from this? If you focus on technology and special effects, you will fail every time. Focus on emotion and you will succeed.
I am not saying it is easy to create a story in which the viewer becomes emotionally attached to the characters, in fact it is very hard. But the reality is that if you fail here, you fail everywhere else too. If you succeed here, everything else isn’t as important.
I think of one of my favorite movies – The Princess Bride. The special effects in this movie suck, and at times I can literally see the matte paintings and think “I could do that”. But I don’t care, and I never will. I love that movie, and my children will love it. Why? Because I love the characters. I want to be the Dread Pirate Roberts.
It seems as though someone at Disney saw Avatar and said to themselves, “hey I bet we could make money like they did!” They set out to copy the success of another movie, but copied the wrong things.
Learn a very important lesson
I didn’t write this article just to rip on a movie, or try and be clever. I wrote it because I think there is something very valuable that we can all take away as artists and creators. I wrote it because I believe that if you think about the contrasts outlined here, that you will create better work.
In fact, after writing this and going through my own portfolio, I can clearly see why some of my work fails and why some succeeds.
A lot of people can tell when something isn’t very good, and for creators it is important to figure out why. Figuring out why something is bad can be one of the most valuable things you do. If you understand why something is bad, you have the power to make things good. It is actually quite easy, just avoid doing the things that make something bad.
How does it feel when you spend time and energy creating something you think is going to be awesome, only to find out no one cares about it? How amazing would it be if you could insure this wouldn’t happen? I think it is possible. I don’t think Avatar’s success was a mistake. I think James Cameron pushed technology and made sure his film looked amazing, but more importantly, he made it feel amazing.
For your next photo shoot or creative endeavor, spend just as much if not more time focusing on the emotional impact you want your work to have as you do fooling around with gear.