Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel “A Princess of Mars” (1912) is a steampunk sword-and-sandal masterpiece. It’s the classic tale of John Carter, a Confederate soldier who astral-projects himself to Mars, becomes a superhero, and hooks up with the hottest babe in the multiverse. It’s the ultimate in juvenile escapist fantasy. At age 13 I read a musty 300+ page first edition in one sitting. I may have given myself a bladder infection in the process, but it was totally worth it.
For the past century this pulp masterwork has been the elusive Holy Grail of film adaptations. Countless filmmakers, including Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampett, famed stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), and Jon Favreau (Elf) have made several attempts at filming a “Princess of Mars” movie and failed miserably. But in 2012, with the (disastrous) release of John Carter, Pixar vet Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) and screenwriter Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”) were the first to bring Burrough’s interstellar adventure to the big screen. Or were they?
In 2009, The Asylum, purveyors of such notorious bargain basement “mockbusters” as Transmorphers and Snakes on a Train, released Princess of Mars. This is a rare instance where an Asylum rip-off came out years before its big budget counterpart. But more importantly – and it disgusts me to my core to write this – this means that The Asylum achieved what Clampett, Harryhausen, and many of the greatest filmmakers in history could not. The Asylum successfullyfilmed one of the most eagerly anticipated film adaptations in history. Please excuse me while I wipe the vomit from my mouth.
In typical Asylum fashion, they treated it like it was just another assembly line mockbuster. Since its release coincided with James Cameron’s Avatar (which is basically a shameless rip-off of Burrough’s novel), Asylum’s Princess of Mars was sold in some markets as Avatar of Mars. The level of contempt the marketing madmen at The Asylum have for this property is sickening. It would be like if the Nazis discovered the Ark of the Covenant just so they could to use it as a toilet. This isn’t just any old sci-fi action movie. This is the sci-fi action movie. Without “A Princess of Mars”, there’d be no Flash Gordon, no Star Wars, no Avatar, no Battlefield Earth! There are people in their nineties who have been waiting their entire lives to see this John Carter of Mars movie. SPOILER ALERT: They’ve waited in vain.
In this abominable adaptation John Carter (Antonio Sabato Jr., aka the poor man’s Lorenzo Lamas) is a modern day American soldier in Afghanistan. He’s seriously injured in a firefight. At least that’s what I assume happens. The lighting is so dim and the camerawork so shaky that I really couldn’t tell what was going on. He’s rushed to a field hospital where things take a turn for the insane:
So the government has his entire genetic code on a single 16 GB USB stick?! Why did the screenwriter think they needed to be that specific about its storage capacity? And since when does teleportation require a duplicate body? Oh right, ’cause they want to turn this original property into an Avatar knockoff. Burroughs’ explanation of how Carter got to Mars is simple and too the point: Carter just finds himself being drawn to the Red Planet – and bam! – he’s there. It makes a lot more sense than this movie’s pseudo-retardo-techno babble. What’s wrong with you, Asylum? It’s as if you’re addicted to failure.
Carter soon discovers that the thinner atmosphere of “Mars” imbues him with superhuman strength and the ability to leap incredible distances over poorly green-screened backgrounds. But don’t get too excited, it’s not like he’s going to use these powers to save himself. Or anyone. He only uses ‘em when the budget allows it. Which is almost never.
A starving Carter tries to break open some alien eggs and eat the fetuses inside. This really pisses off the alien Tharks who take him captive. And of course he doesn’t try to escape by using his superpowers. In an Asylum movie, plausible character motivations take a backseat to budgetary restrictions.
The design of the Tharks, while impressive for an Asylum movie, is objectively pathetic. They’re described in the novel as being green 15-foot tall, four-armed giants. Here, they’re brown human-sized, two-armed pig/lizard hybrids. And every time there’s a closeup shot shot of a Thark, the mask seams and edges are painfully visible.