Saturday, June 17, 2017

Princess of Mars (The Asylum, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Mars Movie Screening” featured a double bill of what are so far the only two feature-length movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-book series of stories set on the planet Mars (the first one, published in serial form in pulp magazines as Under the Moons of Mars and then put out as a book as A Princess of Mars), the much-ballyhooed 2012 Walt Disney Studios production John Carter (originally shot under the title John Carter of Mars but with the M-word deleted from the final release because Disney had just released two other movies with the word “Mars” in the title, including a “comedy” called Mars Needs Moms whose very title was virtually guaranteed to put off potential ticket buyers, with the result that they just alienated science-fiction fans who would have loved to see a film based on the Burroughs Mars books at long last while not bringing in anyone else to replace them) and a cheap-jack independent production called Princess of Mars (though the screening’s publicity included the indefinite article that had been in Burroughs’ title) made by a company called “The Asylum” in 2009. The final credits of Princess of Mars give the company’s Web address as “,” and while I have no idea which country in the world owns the domain “.cc,” the site is still alive, the company is still in business and they produced the recent better-than-average Lifetime TV movie Break-Up Nightmare. Their usual modus operandi of ripping off major-studio productions and trying to get cheaper exploitation versions of the same premise out into theatres (or at least onto DVD’s) first is revealed by other items on their Web site, including The Fast and the Fierce and Ghosthunters. Princess of Mars was intended not only as a knock-off of Disney’s then-upcoming John Carter but of Avatar as well — apparently some prints were released under the alternate title Avatar of Mars — and not having read any of the Burroughs Mars books I can’t vouch for the fidelity (or lack of same) to the source, but according to Charles (who has read some of the Burroughs Mars series) this film’s writer-director, Mark Atkins, made the same mistake as the creators of John Carter did: instead of shooting a straight adaptation of one of the Burroughs Mars books he mashed up plot elements from several of them.  

Princess of Mars opens in modern-day Afghanistan, where John Carter (Antonio Sabato, Jr. — considerably, shall we say, “beefier” than he was in his prime but still a nice enough hunk of man-meat even though the star of John Carter, Taylor Kitsch, is sexier) is some sort of rogue Special Forces fighter tangling with Afghan warlords and drug dealers. One of his battles leaves him near death, but the sinister doctors treating him have a plan: they will download his entire genetic information (which, according to Atkins’ script, fits on a 16-gigabyte hard drive, which the more scientifically literate members of our audience thought was absolutely hilarious) and use it to clone him, so though the original John Carter will die there’ll be a new one who’s not only genotypically identical to the first one but also has all his memories and knowledge. They also send him through some kind of interstellar vortex to Mars — not the Mars in our solar system but “Mars-216,” a planet in another solar system which, like our Mars, is the fourth planet from its sun and whose terrain is red in color (courtesy of the Vasquez Rocks, a Southern California location that’s a go-to site for a lot of movies supposedly set on Mars). Carter first meets up with the Tharks, a race of bipedal creatures with hideous mask-like heads with tusks; they’re a warrior class who fight duels to the death to determine who shall run the tribe and who shall die trying. The leader of the Tharks is Tars Tarkas (Matt Lasky), and when Carter asks for a drink of water Tars wrings out one of his shirts and hands Carter a cup filled with his wringed-out sweat. 

The Tharkian cuisine gets even worse when Tars offers Carter a worm to eat — “I told you we shouldn’t have used Indiana Jones’ caterer!” I couldn’t help but joke (Princess of Mars is the sort of movie that seems to invite Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type commentary) — and it turns out that the worm enables Carter and the Tharks to understand each other’s languages, so that from that point on Atkins has the Tharks speak in comprehensible English instead of the gargling noises that are apparently the Tharks’ own tongue. Meanwhile, there’s an intrigue around the power station that purifies and filters out the impurities in Mars’s atmosphere — if this station isn’t kept in continuous operation Mars will lose its breathable air and everyone and everything on it will die — the power station runs automatically (and one of its junction boxes clearly has a “Craftsman” logo on it) but there need to be two people (or whatever the Martians call the species on their planet that looks like us) in charge to intervene and run the backup unit in case the main one fails. They are Kantos and Saroh Kan (Matt Lagan and Kimberly Ables Jindra), and they’re supposed to be a married couple, but Lagan plays Kantos as such a screaming queen that’s hard to believe. Also the job requires its occupants to live inside the power station for up to 300 years, which most people (or Martians) would probably find a deal-breaker. The central intrigue is that the Kans get killed and the Tharks kidnap the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Traci Lords); she and John Carter instantly fall in love (or at least lust) with each other, but the Tharks are keeping her in a cage to which only Tars Tarkas has the key — and he wears it around his neck so Carter can’t get it without defeating Tars in a fight. Actually the cage is an incredibly flimsy construction made of bamboo stalks tied together with twine, and it would seem easy for anyone with Antonio Sabato, Jr.’s musculature just to rip the damned thing apart and free her that way — but that never seems to occur to him (or to Mark Atkins). 

Eventually Tars agrees to let the princess out of her cage and the principals all end up at the power station, where the villain Sab Than (Chacko Vadaketh) turns out to be, not a native-born Martian but another Earthling, Sarka, one of the bad guys Carter had fought back home in Afghanistan (ya remember Afghanistan?). Rejected by Princess Thoris, who only has eyes for Carter, Sarka decides to get his revenge by — you guessed it — pulling the plug on the power station, thereby condemning every living thing on Mars (including himself) to death by suffocation, and he and Carter have a grand sword fight up and down the power station (suggesting that Atkins had seen the Errol Flynn-Basil Rathbone epics from the 1930’s) until Carter wins, Princess Thoris brings the power station back on line by waving her hands over it like one of those computer screens on NCIS, and Mars is saved for humanity, Tharkdom and everything else that abides there. There’s also an earlier scene in which the Princess, still locked in that bamboo cage, is beset by a flock of weird and malevolent flying creatures in a scene that suggests Atkins was ripping off Hitchcock’s The Birds. Princess of Mars is one of those frustrating movies that’s too bad to work as genuine entertainment and not bad enough to work as camp, either; Sabato basically lets his pecs do his acting for him and Lords goes through the entire movie with a fixed look of boredom on her face — I found myself wishing someone would have stuck his cock in her face so we could at least see her doing what made her famous originally. Lords apparently admitted in an interview that she was embarrassed by making this movie and had done it only for the money; she’s held on to her looks but seems either to have lost whatever acting skills she ever had or never bothered to acquire any. (The only other Lords film I can recall seeing is John Waters’ Cry-Baby, an experience she remembered fondly in her autobiography — she said Waters treated her kindly and respectfully but the film’s star, Johnny Depp, was so heavily cocooned by his entourage she literally never spoke to him except when they had a scene together — but I don’t remember her making an impression on me, good or bad; it’s a fun movie but Lords seemed to be in it more as one of Waters’ fabled casting stunts than for any intrinsic talent.)  

Princess of Mars is a pretty useless movie; it cost $300,000 to make (though only $70,000 of that went towards principal photography; most of the rest was spent in post-production on the special effects, which look pretty good for the budget but hardly compare to the elaborate state-of-the-art ones in Avatar or John Carter, and when Sabato does his great leaping jumps, made possible by Mars’ lower gravity, it’s obvious it’s being done with wire work) and the lack of money shows, though a more imaginative director than Mark Atkins probably could have done more with the money they did have. It’s just 93 minutes of professionally acceptable but uninspiring film, and it doesn’t help that a couple of times you hear the word “Barsoom” on the soundtrack — “Barsoom” was the Martians’ own name for Mars (and they called Earth “Jasoom”) but you wouldn’t know that from this film, and at least one audience member gave the audible version of a wince when he heard Traci Lords call Mars “Mars.” The screening was preceded by a number of student films with Martian themes, including a 1981 production called A Picnic on Mars which was largely done with stop-motion animation — the actual models used were on exhibit — and deals with two hot-looking young Martians, a man and a woman, dressed in the bare minimum (and frankly they were more fun to look at than the leads in Princess of Mars!), whose attempt to have the titular picnic on Mars is beset by various monsters, many of them borrowed from Burroughs’ descriptions of the lower orders of Martian life. While I ruefully thought of what the film’s two leads would look like now (especially comparing what I looked like in 1981 with what I look like now!), and much of the dialogue was so badly recorded it was virtually incomprehensible (fortunately either the recording quality got better as this eight-minute film unrolled or I just got used to it), A Picnic on Mars was genuinely charming and quite good for a student film of its vintage — which was old enough that “film” actually meant film and not “computer” or “smartphone.”