Tuesday, January 26, 2010

PRINCESS OF MARS

The masters of the low budget "mockbuster," The Asylum, are back again, with another adaptation of an Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy classic. This time, it's the legendary interplanetary swashbuckler PRINCESS OF MARS, adapted and directed by Mark Atkins (MERLIN AND THE WAR OF THE DRAGONS, DRAGONQUEST).

The original Burroughs novel is considered a science fiction masterpiece. First published in 1912, A Princess Of Mars chronicled the adventures of an ex-Confederate soldier, Captain John Carter of Virginia, who, cornered in a cave by Apaches, finds himself mystically transported to Mars. There, he discovers a vividly-realized alien world of monsters, ancient science, and noble warriors. And a beautiful princess, of course. Burroughs eventually wrote ten more novels set on his version of Mars (called "Barsoom" by its inhabitants), and filmmakers have vainly attempted to bring the property to the screen on numerous occasions over the last 75+ years. Not coincidentally, production has just started on a mega-budget version from Disney and director Andrew Stanton, and is scheduled for release next year.

In The Asylum's version, John Carter (Antonio Sabato Jr., EARTH 2) is a modern-day Marine in Afghanistan who is badly wounded on a mission. Military scientists experiment on him, and he finds himself somehow (it's never explained at all) transported whole and healthy to Mars. But not our Mars - in this version it's a different planet, in another solar system entirely, that our astronomers just call "Mars" for some reason. He soon encounters a tribe of a reptilian warrior race known as the Tharks, and after a series of adventures, is befriended by their chieftan, Tars Tarkas (Matt Lasky, INALIENABLE). When the Tharks capture Dejah Thoris (Traci Lords, ZACH AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO), the titular Princess of Mars, Carter takes it upon himself to protect her and help her escape.

The thing is - and this is where I get my taste questioned, big time - I didn't hate the movie. Compared to most film adaptations of Burroughs' writings (especially the Tarzan movies, which all took huge liberties with Burrough's stories), PRINCESS OF MARS is surprisingly faithful to the source material. Mark Atkin's screenplay modernizes the main character and dialogue (to its detriment), but the original story is strong enough to almost overcome the tampering and shoestring production values.

In fact, the movie actually follows the broad strokes of the novel quite closely, changing the details mostly to accommodate the microscopic budget and exploitative needs of the production. In the novel, for instance, the Tharks were four-armed giants, but the cost of creating an army of CGI Tharks was prohibitive, so we get guys in monster masks, instead. (To be fair, they're pretty cool masks.) The whole "military experiment" thing is an obvious attempt to cash in on James Cameron's current hit, AVATAR - which is ironic, since AVATAR owes a lot of its plot and themes to Burroughs. And, yeah, aging ex-porn star Lords is definitely miscast as Dejah Thoris.

But - the use of familiar locations like Vasquez Rocks (or, as most geeks know it, the place where Kirk fought the Gorn) and good old Bronson Canyon give the movie the feel of a vintage 30's serial (or 80's sword & sorcery flick), and the costumes and props are pretty well designed. The CGI by Tiny Juggernaut is adequate (I very much liked the design of the Barsoomian airship and the star-filled daytime skies, suggesting a thinner atmosphere), and Chris Ridenhour once again rises above and beyond to deliver an epic-sounding musical score.

Don't get me wrong - Disney's forthcoming John Carter film is going to kick this one's ass nine ways to Sunday, and as an adaptation, PRINCESS OF MARS is decidedly weak, in no way doing justice to the author's characters or world. The Burroughs purists are going to trash this movie mercilessly. But as a microbudget fantasy adventure film, it actually delivers some honest entertainment, with passable performances, good photography, some decent special effects and lively action sequences.

The Asylum's PRINCESS OF MARS comes to DVD with a solid, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and 5.1 surround sound. Extras include a short behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, and trailers for other current and upcoming Asylum titles.

So, do I recommend it? Well, if you're a Burroughs fan, you'd probably be better off waiting for the Disney version. As Burroughs adaptations go, it's about on par with 1976's AT THE EARTH'S CORE, only cheaper (and Traci Lords is no Caroline Munro). But if you're like me, with a perverse fondness for the low-budget fantasy films of the 80s and a high tolerance for cheese, then sure, it's worth a rental or catching when it inevitably airs on SyFy.

BUY: Princess of Mars