Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Sol vs. John Carter, two dramas about guys who mysteriously end up on faraway planets—and what they have to do to survive once there!
Each of these films could probably pair equally well with another high-profile project, if they had come out at a different time. Next year, Sol is bound to draw Hunger Games comparisons, while the makers of John Carter seem to be banking on the idea that we've all forgotten about Avatar. But since we have access to both trailers now, and since both of these movies revolve around guys who find themselves in harsh, unexpected foreign-planet environments, we're putting them together. Sol is an indie movie set in the future about a bunch of teens who have all entered the prestigious Sol Invictus competition. They're sent to a faraway planet, and the first group to figure out which of the stars in the sky is Earth's sun wins. (One sentence of the synopsis in particular is very Hunger Games-y: "A glorious life awaits the lucky few who win, and many have died at the hands of their peers along the way with no questions asked.") But something's gone wrong: the teams end up on the wrong planet, with most of their compatriots and all of their equipment missing. They don't know where they are, and neither do the competition's organizers. It's a race to survive!, etc., etc.
In John Carter, Taylor Kitsch (an Interview pal) plays the title role, a Civil War veteran who inexplicably ends up on Mars and then gets involved in some kind of other civil war happening there. (Also, Mars is called Barsoom? But it's also Mars. This is apparently Edgar Rice Burroughs' fault.) There's an alluring lady who tells him that he might be their race's only hope; there's some marauding troops and some menacing-looking spaceships. We're going to give this one to Sol, because we're a little sick of Earthling-centric sci-fi plots. Why do foreign planets always seem to need our help? It's a little paternalistic, isn't it? Advantage: Sol
Sol was written and directed by Benjamin Carland, who has worked on some shorts as well as a documentary about the shortage of primary-care doctors called M.I.A. MD. He's a tiny baby in filmmaker years (a spry 27!), and the best we can suggest so far is that he's "promising." John Carter is based on a popular series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (+1), and it was directed by Pixar's Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) based on a screenplay adapted by Stanton and novelist Michael Chabon (+100). Sorry, no contest. Advantage: John Carter
Again, Sol's going to lose here by virtue of not being a big studio production. Any of its young (white, male) stars may be very talented, but we've just never heard of any of them. Its biggest star seems to be Jake Brown, who was on a TV series called A God Named Pablo. Shrug. In addition to Kitsch, Sol stars Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton, among others. People we've heard of. Advantage: John Carter
We wanted to include this category, rather than, say, Special Effects, to throw Sol a bone—it's a low-budget feature, and to stick it in with a high-profile Disney film is unfair from a financial perspective. So let's compare them based on what they were able to do with what they had.
To be honest, given that John Carter arose in part from the imaginations of two Pixar honchos (in addition to Stanton, John Lasseter produced it), we're a little disappointed that the production design isn't more creative. At first, we thought John Carter had just been transported back to ancient Egypt, because that's what Barsoom looks like. (Witness the view of the palace and the princess at 0:29, then think about any Cleopatra movie you've ever seen.) We are, however, intrigued by the weird water-lightning thing that happens at 0:43. And the design for the hostile spaceships (around 1:55) is kind of cool: they look like a dragonfly mated with a lobster. In general, though, we were looking for something a little more mind-blowing.
Sol, again, didn't have a lot to work with budget-wise, but they did manage to create a lightning-fireball sort of thing (0:08) that looks pretty menacing, as well as some believable transparent future-computers (0:39, 1:21)! And they use the greatest trick in the indie filmmaker's arsenal: leaving stuff offscreen, to ratchet up the tension. "Did you get that? What was that thing?!" one of the characters demands at 1:44. We're intrigued! We do think future sneakers probably won't look quite so dorky, but it's not enough to lose the category—and what's enough to win the category for Sol is its location scouting and lighting. The filmmakers shot the movie entirely in North Carolina, but managed, through a combination of those things, to make it look like a totally alien world. Shots at 0:29, 1:02, and 1:18, especially, gave us chills. Advantage: Sol
We're cautiously optimistic about John Carter, given the strength of the names attached—even though some elements, like the weirdly Native American-seeming touches to its Barsoom costuming and the possibly-dubious message, give us pause. Stanton, Chabon, we've got our eye on you—do us proud. And given Sol's budget, we're impressed that it's managed to intrigue us just as much as the Disney fare—it looks like a really interesting movie! Don't make us choose! Winner: Both!