In all the speculation about why Disney’s John Carter failed at the box-office (poor marketing, limited mainstream appeal, lack of big stars), one potential explanation has remained curiously unmentioned – perhaps most folks just thought the story had already been told well enough in The Asylum’s 2009 adaptation, Princess of Mars.

Ha, I’m just fucking with you. Nobody thinks that.

The Asylum, for those that don’t know, is the low-budget movie studio known for both creature features like Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus and, more importantly, their string of “mock-busters” – quickly made cheapo rip-offs of big Hollywood movies. Hollywood brings out Transformers, The Asylum gives us Transmorphers. Hollywood remakes The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Asylum offers up The Day the Earth Stopped. Hollywood gets tongue in cheek and does Snakes on a Plane, The Asylum plants their tongue even further in cheek and releases Snakes on a Train. What I like about The Asylum is how utterly shameless they are about this, which in turn actually makes it oddly respectable. They’re not trying to fool anyone; they’re just cashing in on the demand for even more big, stupid movies. Nothing wrong with that.

Interestingly enough, Princess of Mars is not their mock-buster of John Carter, despite being based on the same source material. No, this was their mock-buster for James Cameron’s Avatar (it was even re-titled Avatar of Mars for some TV showings). This was actually a somewhat ingenious move on The Asylum’s part – there was no way they could hope to rival the incredible visual spectacle of Cameron’s film, so instead they decided to just adapt the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel from which Cameron took many of his story’s elements. Though I’m not sure how much they actually flaunted this, it actually allowed The Asylum a rare instance of potential artistic pretentiousness, as at least they were acknowledging the obvious Burroughs influence. Plus, no matter what you think of The Asylum, they will always be able to rightfully claim that they made the first ever “John Carter of Mars” movie. Take that, Disney.

Princess of Mars updates Burroughs’ novel to modern times, recasting John Carter (Antonio Sabato, Jr.) as a special forces soldier on mission in Afghanistan. After being betrayed by an Afghan informant, Carter is severely injured. The military decides to make the best out of a bad situation and informs Carter he will be used as the test subject in a new experiment, in which he will be digitized and sent on a reconnaissance mission to Mars. Except for some reason in this movie it’s “not the Mars you know.” No, Carter is being sent to a small heretofore unknown planet known as Mars 216. I can’t even begin to figure out why The Asylum made this change. At first, I thought maybe they were being overly concerned about the realistic possibilities of Mars’ atmosphere supporting human life, but since a major plot point revolves around a plant that actually creates the breathable air on the planet, I don’t see why that should matter. It’s just a weird meaningless change that also begs the question of why the movie isn’t called Princess of Mars 216.

Anyway, Carter awakens on “Mars 216” and, after discovering the planet’s gravitational pull allows him to leap great distances, he is almost immediately captured by a group of Tharks. Tharks are of course the green, four-armed race of aliens that in John Carter were rendered by the best in modern CGI motion-capture technology. Here, they are green, two-armed aliens that are created by the best in “Halloween mask” technology. Oh well. The leader of this Thark tribe, Tars Tarkus, decides to keep Carter prisoner, and the film soon delivers the same stupid cheat that John Carter employed, having Carter ingest something that makes him instantly able to both understand and speak the Mars language (a liquid in John Carter, a worm-like creature here). If he is as big a fan of Burroughs creation as he claims, it seems likely that John Carter director Andrew Stanton probably checked this movie out at some point – is it possible that this was the one element he actually liked and decided to steal? And, if so, would it mark the first time Hollywood ripped-off The Asylum for a change? The mind boggles.

Carter proves himself a capable warrior after helping the Tharks fight off a swarm of giant spiders. Oh, yeah, I guess I should have mentioned that – Mars 216 is crawling with giant man-eating insects. No, that is not from Burroughs. But while I didn’t understand the whole “Mars 216” change, I’m fairly confident that this one comes down to the simple fact that The Asylum loves when giant insects attack people. Hey, they like what they like, and you can’t fault them for that. Anyway, this event causes Tars Tarkus to make Carter an honorary member of the tribe. Good for him.

Carter and the Tharks soon encounter a giant airship and, being the diplomats they are, immediately proceed to shoot it down. Carter finds a survivor from the ship, Dejah Thoris (Traci Lords), princess of the Mars city, Helium. I know she’s the princess of Helium because the movie says so, and because I am familiar with the source material. But the movie never actually goes to Helium. In fact, the entire war between Helium and Zodanga is absent from this version, and the villainous Zodangan prince Sab Than is re-imagined as a traitorous bodyguard of Thoris. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hoping to protect the beautiful Thoris from the wrath of vile Thark leader Tal Hajus, Carter claims her as his own personal prisoner. From this point on, the movie spends a lot of time watching Carter, Thoris and the Tharks trekking through the deserts of Mars. This section is actually fairly close to the novel, at least in concept if not in execution. But, as you might remember me saying in my John Carter review, a close adaptation of the novel does not always make for a good movie. Stanton and his fellow writers obviously understood the lengthy passage of Carter and Thoris among the Tharks would not make for the most compelling viewing, and so wisely condensed it down considerably. Princess of Mars writer/director Mark Atkins might have understood this, too, but since he’s working on an Asylum budget I guess he didn’t really have much choice, so we’re left with a pretty boring middle act in which we’re just watching a bunch of characters wander around.

Thankfully, we do eventually get back to the plot proper, as it is revealed that Thoris had been on her way to the aforementioned Atmosphere Plant, to make sure everything is in proper order. Tal Hajus believes the Atmosphere Plant is a myth; that the planet would be just fine without it, and that it only exists to make the Tharks believe they are dependent on the people of Helium to live. He’s pretty pissy about the whole thing, really, deciding to make Thoris his slave and forcing Carter and Tarkus to face each other in gladiatorial battle just for even bothering him about it.  Our heroes have to deal with that whole mess, along with the fact that Thoris’ bodyguard Sab Than plans to sabotage the Atmosphere Plant unless she agrees to marry him. So a pretty crappy day, all together.

Now here I have to get into major spoiler territory, so those of you that have been looking forward to one day watching The Asylum’s Princess of Mars might want to skip this paragraph. At this point the movie reveals its big twist, which is also the largest deviation from its source material. It turns out Sab Than is in fact the very same Afghan informant that betrayed Carter back on Earth, having somehow bribed the military into also sending him to Mars 216. This is, to put it politely, fucking stupid. Revealing that another Earth man got to Mars before Carter sort of robs the hero of his uniqueness, and takes away the whole “special destiny” aspect of the tale (though you could argue having it all be a military experiment already did that anyway). And I don’t really get why they thought Sab Than being from Earth makes him any more menacing than if he was just an evil alien like he is meant to be. Perhaps Marks Atkins just really hates Middle Eastern people, and couldn’t resist portraying one as a potentially world-crippling villain (for legal reasons I should probably point out that this is pure speculation on my part, and I am by no means claiming with any certainty that Atkins is a racist).

It’s really not fair, I suppose, to compare Princess of Mars to Disney’s John Carter, given the vast differences in budget ($300,000 compared to $250 million). But I’m gonna do it anyway. Though Princess of Mars is actually slightly more faithful to the source material in a couple regards, its also blatantly disrespectful in many more ways, and those elements are so gratingly stupid that it weighs the whole thing down. Whatever changes John Carter made to the story were done to make the movie a more engaging and entertaining whole; whatever changes Princess of Mars makes were done because, well, fuck it, why not? To be fair, some of the changes were no doubt enforced by the film’s lack of resources. It’s not like The Asylum could afford to film large battle scenes between Helium or Zodanga, or feature Carter’s faithful six-legged Woola (what creatures are on hand are all entirely unconvincing CGI). But that brings up an interesting point – why are some people complaining about John Carter‘s bloated budget? Heck, at least all of it was up there onscreen, like it should be in a movie like this. This is a story that demands a higher budget. When you have a huge budget, you can create wondrous alien landscapes that dazzle the eye. When you have $300,000, you end up with “exotic” alien locations that look suspiciously like a high-school boiler room:

That’s not to say the low-budget approach of Princess of Mars doesn’t have its own ironic charms, though. For instance, one of the film’s highlight moments is a supposedly thrilling insect attack, represented by somebody off-camera throwing spider puppets at Traci Lords.

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As for the acting, well, I’ve seen a lot of people take issue with Taylor Kitsch’s occasionally wooden performance in John Carter, but he looks like Lee freakin’ Strassberg compared to Antonio Sabato, Jr. Truthfully, Sabato, Jr. isn’t done any favors by a script that reduces Carter to little more than a one-liner machine, but nor does he bring much to the part himself. His range in the film is limited to two modes – bored guy or “I kinda think this is all beneath me” guy. Neither are all that appealing. I’ve seen worse performances in similar low-budget movies, but I’ve also seen way more fun performances from actors that just seem to “get it.” Unlike Kitsch, Sabato, Jr. seems unable to buy into the absurdity of the material in the way necessary to really breath the character to life. Plus, maybe it’s just me, but I never really pictured John Carter with a “tramp stamp.”

Meanwhile, though Traci Lords might look pretty good in the “slave Leia” bikini they’ve thrown on her, this version of Dejah Thoris is a far cry from the absolutely wonderful and strong female character Lynn Collins created in John Carter. Don’t get me wrong, Lords brings all the class and dignity to the part that you would expect from a former porn star. But the character is given very little to do – this film treats Thoris as more of your typical damsel in distress. In all fairness, I’ve seen Lords turn in some pretty decent performances in other B-movies – she can be a lot of fun in the right roles. But there’s just nothing here for her to grab onto, and her one-note performance reflects it.

At their best, movies from The Asylum can be an amazingly good time. This is not The Asylum at its best. Princess of Mars has a few amusing moments scattered throughout, but it’s a real slog to sit through for much of its running time. I think if it had been made with the same sort of “wink, wink” sense of fun that they apply to movies like Mega Piranha and Mega Python vs Gatoroid, this could have been pretty entertaining. But Mark Atkins tries too hard to make this a serious, exciting sci-fi action piece, despite all apparent evidence that this goal was out of his reach. Yes, it still earns a few points for being the first legitimate John Carter of Mars movie in the material’s century-long quest to the big-screen (though this was straight-to-video, so let’s not go nuts). But it’s simply not amusing enough even on a “dumb fun” level to make that much of an impression. I Suppose, if you’re a big fan of Burroughs’ original novels, it’s worth a look for the sake of pure curiosity. But really, with Disney’s John Carter out there now, there’s no real good reason to bother with this one.

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