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Sunday, 7 February 2010

DVD Of The Week: Princess Of Mars (2009)

If nothing else you have to admire the cojones of the people behind The Asylum for their latest mockbuster: Princess of Mars - based very (and I cannot emphasize that word enough) loosely on Edgar Rice Burroughs' seminal novel of the same name.

The DVD box features an unattributed quote on the back proclaiming "heart-pounding creature action of Starship Troopers and the epic adventure of Lord Of The Rings", while the front has a timely announcement that this is "the classic story that inspired James Cameron's Avatar".

Not true. Burroughs' novel may have inspired Avatar, but The Asylum's bastardisation of his classic tale wouldn't be inspiring anyone anytime soon to produce anything more than groans of despair or chuckles of mocking glee.

Which is a shame because - ignoring the source material for a moment - in large parts this isn't actually too bad of a swords-and-planet adventure story.

It's just writer/director Mark Atkins' cherry picking of names and themes from Burroughs work seems both random and unnecessary. Given how much has already been changed for this low-budget bonanza it wouldn't have taken much thought to just change a bit more and have crafted a truly original piece of fiction (of course then it wouldn't have been able to trade on the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Avatar).

While it's understandable - for budgetary reasons - that the four-armed green martians became two-armed and the eight-legged beasts of burden known as thoats became two-legged parodies of Star Wars' eopie, I don't get the point of changing John Carter - the hero of the tale - from a gentleman adventurer and Civil War cavalry officer to a smart-ass, meathead, special operations solider from the current Afghan conflict.

But worst, and most pointless of all, is changing the actual planet where the events take place from Ancient Mars (i.e. our neighbouring planet but thousands of years in the past) to a planet in a whole other solar system that has been dubbed Mars (presumably just for the sake of the story, it's never explained)!

And let's not overlook Carter's sudden ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, which in the novels is explained as a result of the difference in gravity between Earth and Mars, but here remains unexplained - mentioned in passing once as a "superpower" - much to the bemusement, no doubt, of viewers unfamiliar with the original text.

John Carter (Antonio Sabato Jr) is fatally wounded during an anti-drugs operation in Afghanistan, when he is betrayed by his native contact, and out-of-nowhere American military surgeons decide to conduct some bizarre and gobblegooky experiment (for no readily apparent or justifiable reason) to 'teleport' Carter to this other galaxy and the planet they call Mars (using a Stargate-like tunnel effect).

Unfortunately, with the introduction of this bizarre and nonsensical plot device the whole story could almost be written-off as a 'near-death-experience' or a Jacobs Ladder-style hallucination.

Given that Atkins left in the "air pumping station" storyline from Burroughs' novel (which was always the bit I had slight difficulties getting my head around) I found it odd that he would choose to tamper with Carter's original more mysterious travel method to Mars and replace it with pseudo-scientific technobabble.

Carter arrives on the planet and is captured by the Green Martians aka Tharks. He befriends the group leader, Tars Tarkas (Matt Lasky), earns Tars' respect by helping when the party is attacked by giant spider/ant creatures and promptly falls in love with "The Princess Of Mars", Dejah Thoris (Traci Lords) when she, too, is captured by the Tharks.

Lords is suitably haughty and snippy as the Princess, but for some reason appears to be chewing a tennis ball or a mouthful of cotton wool throughout the film, which rather undermines Thoris' status as the most desirable woman on the planet.

You could also point out that Lords, as a "Red Martian", wears far too much clothing compared to Dejah Thoris in the book (an aspect I was particularly disappointed that this film didn't pursue) and no attempt at all is made to make her skin tone look red. Given the prevalence of sexy, green-skinned ladies in Star Trek, for instance, surely it wouldn't have been too hard to have spray-painted Lords red for this role?

The caravan of prisoners is being taken to the leader of the Tharks, Tal Hajus (Mitchell Gordon), so that he may determine their fate - but then another leftfield and totally stupid sub-plot is thrown in with the unmasking of a second Earthman on the planet, who turns out to be the real bad guy in the story.

The slightly galling thing is that between Carter's arrival on Mars and this final dumb twist in the tale, Princess Of Mars is rollicking good fun (again, if you can overlook the liberties taken with Burroughs' work), with decent alien races and monsters and some reasonable worldbuilding on the Martian cultures.

The special effects are acceptable, given the minimal budget Mark Atkins clearly had to work with; the Thark masks are obviously rubber (and one of Tars' tusks wobbles comically on occasion) , but some thought has gone into the design of the aliens and their skyships (even if Dejah Thoris' sky barge looks remarkably like Jabba The Hutt's skiff from Return Of The Jedi and the one-man craft - actually a converted kayak - is very similar to the speeder bikes from the same episode of Star Wars).

You don't expect greatness from The Asylum, but Princess Of Mars is far from being their worst film (of the ones I've seen that honour belongs to Mega-Shark Vs Giant Octopus) and for all its faults, it's an enjoyable planetary romance... as long as you can ignore the 600lb gorilla in the corner of the room, which is poor old Edgar Rice Burroughs spinning in his grave.

Of course, you could always just wait for the big budget Walt Disney adaptation, due in 2012, entitled John Carter Of Mars, which promises to stick more faithfully to the original text... and feature proper multi-limbed aliens. But when have geeks ever been patient?

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