Friday, September 17, 2010
Princess of Mars (2009)
The Asylum isn’t exactly known for quality filmmaking, so there’s a You Pay Your Money and Take Your Chances element working every time you sit down to one of their movies. Naturally, that also applies to their adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. But knowing that, Princess of Mars is surprisingly entertaining in parts.
The framing sequence on Earth has been updated to modern times, but not just to make John Carter a more relatable character. At least, that’s not the only reason. He’s no longer a Civil War vet, but a Special Ops soldier in Afghanistan. That not only makes him contemporary; it also lets the writers offer an explanation for Carter’s transportation to Barsoom. When Carter is severely injured in a mission, the military lets him know that they’ve more or less cloned him and kept his genetic info stored on a flash drive. When he dies, they’ll be able to transmit that data to a planet in the Alpha Centauri system that scientists have dubbed Mars 268 or something like that. They think it may be habitable by humans and want Carter to check it out.
There are all kinds of holes in that explanation if you think about it too hard, but the movie does its best not to let you do that. Everything happens quickly and before you know it, Carter is on an alien world.
Once he gets there, the plot follows the novel’s events fairly closely for a while. Carter meets Tars Tarkas and the other Tharks (missing their extra pair of arms in this version, but otherwise recognizable as Tharks by their tusks and general largeness) and begins working his way up their hierarchy by kicking butt in battle. There unfortunately aren’t any giant, white gorillas (we get monster insects instead), but Carter eventually meets Dejah Thoris and sets himself up as her protector when she’s captured by the Tharks. And he eventually reaches the Tharks’ city for a reality check when the Thark ruler doesn’t see everything in him that Tars Tarkas did. The film even keeps Carter’s super-jumping ability; something I wouldn’t have bet on.
Most of the film’s entertainment value is due to Antonio Sabato Jr. He’s not the book’s John Carter, but he’s charming and shows some really nice comedic timing when delivering his lines. Traci Lords is merely endurable as Dejah Thoris though. She looks good in her Slave Leia outfit, but she consistently maintains one expression – scowling – throughout the movie. There’s no chemistry between her and Sabato either, but he comes across as a nice enough guy that you believe he’d try to save her anyway, even if you can’t believe he’s in love with her.
In spite of a promising beginning, I got a little worried towards the end. The writers bring part of the Afghanistan plot to Barsoom and that takes getting used to; especially for fans of the novel. But though they weren’t terribly gentle with how they did it, the maneuver works and helps fix a problem with the novel.
It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but I remember that the end of it – a crisis at Barsoom’s atmosphere plant – felt very disconnected from the rest of the story. The movie ties it in with the rest of the plot so that what happens at the plant is a natural consequence of everything that’s come before. Lord knows that the writing in the movie isn’t perfect, but I appreciate that it noticed some of the same trouble spots I did about the book and tried to solve them. They could’ve been solved better, but credit for the effort.
If only the Asylum had the budget for some real fight choreography and better supporting actors (the guy who plays the Thark ruler is especially atrocious, which is weird because he has a dual role in the movie and isn’t half bad in his other part), it could have been a legitimately good – though flawed – adaptation. That doesn’t take into account the typically poor special effects, but my not totally hating it has me feeling generous.
Two out of five Martian princesses.