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Why John Carter Sucks and Avatar is Awesome

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Sep 18

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.

With that in mind I started my movie and started to analyze. The weirdest thing happened then,  I realized that it is the exact same movie as Avatar, except it sucks.

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”.

Same Movie

Why would I say that Avatar and John Carter are the same movie? Let’s go through it.

John Carter

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.


See Above

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.

The Difference

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.

  • Carl Constantine

    Having seen both movies I see your point and agree. Also something to consider…Avatar is actually the Adult (as in grown up) version of the Kid’s movie, Fern Gully:

  • Victor

     Thank you. This article jolted I realize why my photos keep missing the X factor. When I look back, I realize that the best photos are those where the emotions connect to the audience..

  • Mbarbalet

    Ah ha moment. Now, if only I could figure out how to capture the emotional connection every time. Thanks for the insights.

  • Dave

    I agree with your synopsis here. But did you realize that John Carter is based on a series of excellent pulp fiction sci-fi books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (created of Tarzan) nearly a century ago? Check out ‘A Princess of Mars’ and tell me it’s not good. The movie takes “creative” liberties and falls completely short.

  • Tom Simone

    Good article, thanks.

  • Mauri383

    I liked John Carter the best. I know the story isn’t too deep (neither is Avatar’s) but overall it got me entertained. Another thing I liked about it is that it uses real locations (unlike Avatar which is a cgi fest, and it shows). I didn’t like the underlying message in Avatar, you know, the “humans are scumb, heartless creatures, I’ll better switch to this other race”. Also you could compare Avatar with Dances with Wolves, it’s the same story. Also The Last Samurai uses a similar approach. I didn’t appreciate the oversimplified plot in Avatar. Things like using names such as “Unobtanium”, or that the military is portrayed as one dimensional, stupid red necks; and the corporate guy is simply evil as hell. The only beautiful, peaceful, loving, relatable beings in the movie are the Naa’vi (which also is an oversimplified name, it sounds like “naive” if we give it a V’ger treatment). All in all, neither movie is in my top ten (nor my top 100 for that matter), but if I have to choose to rewatch one of the two, John Carter would be my choice. I won’t give Cameron another 3 hs of my life ever again, the last compelling movie he directed was T2.

  • Samuel C

    I loved John Carter. The reason it didn’t make a lot of money is because Disney really dropped the ball on marketin it. This is why after the movie released, the director of marketing was fired.

  • Daniel James T. Cook

    Aaron’s point brings out another good lesson. Namely, there’s so much focus on creativity in photography. We all want to develop more and more creativity (at least I do). But you can’t just say, ‘welp, I’m going to come up with something creative right now’ and have an original idea pop out like a golden egg. So rather than focus on creativity, we can focus on communicating emotion and use our unique creative perspective to do that. “Creativity” should then show up automatically. 

  • Julia Kuzmenko McKim

    Great point! Right on, Aaron!

  • Pingback: How to Create a Story Through Photography

  • Jeff Wallace

    It is interesting how many times this story has been repeated over the years.  As mentioned before Fern Gully, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, and John Carter. I think there are even  few more that I have forgotten.  

  • Yo Mama

    Great insight Aaron.  Life is not about scenery and machinery, but about people and emotion which is undoubtedly much harder to portray.

  • arrowlili

    I’d never even heard of John carter before this article but I love avatar… Made me cry (but that’s not too hard, I’m a complete wuss when it comes to movies) and the princess bride is one of my fave movies of all time. Cary elwes is the coolest pirate ever :-)

  • AngeloDau

    you lost the real point, we’re not talking about “movie vs movie”, the point is how much is emotional your work? who cares about dances with wolves etc?

  • AngeloDau

    “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.”  Aaron is talking about photography, not movies, here ;)

  • Terry King

    I felt Prometheus suffered the same problem as you mention. With Alien (and even Aliens) every character was so strong but in Prometheus I couldn’t of cared less about any of them.

  • J Latif

    Personally liked both. Avatar wins on visuals..that’s all I’d put to separate them as movies.
    Just to clarify though, as there seems to be an underlying insinuation that John Carter was copying avatar, JC is based on a book series started over 100 years ago..literally 1911. Whilst avatar is basically fern gully amongst other films (pocahontas, dances with wolves etc..they all are pretty much the same thing)

  • John Harper Jr

    Two hours forever lost.

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