A Review by Den Valdron
First things first - What I'll say about Asylum's Princess of Mars is that it's one of those rare movies that are exactly like their trailer. It's not that the trailer has all the good parts and the movie is just filler. What it is, is that the trailer exactly captures the flavour, the pace, the imagery of the movie. So if you liked the trailer, you'll like the movie. If you didn't, you probably won't.
Next up, don't read this review if you're one of the sort of people who get concerned about spoilers. Because first, I really do give away spoilers and plot, and second, the plot points I give away are actually hidden from the audience and add to the drama. This isn't an A-Team situation where I reveal that the Team is trapped, but Hannibal comes up with a fiendish plan. This is more a Crying Game situation where I reveal that the chick is a guy.
So, if you haven't seen it, but think you might enjoy giving it a shot and want the surprise plot twist -- go home. You've just read as much of this review as is safe to read.
Of course, if you have seen the movie, presumably you've formed your own opinions, and I don't know why you're reading this.
So I suppose that my readership is confined to those who haven't seen it, don't care, but who for some reason have some time to kill reading this.
Burroughs' A Princess of Mars came out in 1912, and within a couple of decades people were trying to make it into a movie. In fact, efforts to make A Princess of Mars go all the way back to the dawn of movies - its been one of those great unfilmables. At some point or other, just about everyone had his hands in it.
Bob Clampett, the famous animator, and creator of Loonytoons was one of the first to take a goy at it, working with Burroughs and his son back in 1931. If you scout around Youtube for instance, you can find the original test animation footage of a Green Man riding a Thark. There was a proposal for an animated A Princess of Mars that would have beaten Snow White as the first animated feature. Sadly, it didn't fly.
Harryhausen, the stop motion animation giant, is reported to have been interested, and some of the creatures in his Sinbad movies seem suspiciously like Tharks. Particularly a trio of bug-eyed monsters that fight Sinbad in the voyage with the stop-motion baboon and troglodyte.
There was a proposal from the 1980s that got pretty close, from Disney, apparently, at least as far as storyboards and pre-productions. The storyboards depict Tharks as normal-sized green men with onion-shaped heads wearing birdcages. Iím kind of glad it didn't get off the ground. I think you can find some of the storyboards on Bill Hillman's site.
The rise of CGI technology, and the success of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings probably made the Barsoom movie inevitable. By this time, just about every major fantasy property from Harry Potter to the Chronicles of Narnia had the Hollywood treatment, and Princess of Mars had been knocking around for a long, long time.
So, from probably about 1995, it was inevitable that sooner or later, someone was going to get off their butts and do it. A lot of names got associated with the project - Jon Favreau, Kerry Conran, Robert Rodrigues. Some good, some not so good. You never know. Sometimes these things seem like a roulette table, with the wheel spinning, the ball bouncing, and the movie falling randomly into some lap or other.
Currently, its back to Disney, using Pixar, which is known for family friendly cuddly computer animation, and Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews. Good for them. Weíll see how it all turns out.
This is all just a quick sketch - Iím sure that thereís a fascinating article to be written on the endless twists and turns of the project. Anyway, the bottom line is that there's a big budget John Carter coming down the pipe - something that will probably cost over a hundred million dollars, and have lots of gloriously overwrought CGI, battles, derring dos, set design and art direction out the wazoo.... And which may or may not have a plot, may or may not be faithful, may or may not be good.
You can never tell with these things. No one sets out to make a bad movie, but like cancer, sometimes it just happens... despite everyone's best efforts. For instance, Tim Burton is a genius, he had major resources and real talent working with him all the way through, and he spent truckloads of money, but his Planet of the Apes stunk on ice.
So let's all just cross our fingers and hope for the best, shall we.
But that's not the movie we're talking about. Nope. We're not talking about the big budget mega blockbuster money hoovering super ultra-promoted John Carter of MarsTM, which will hit theatres sometime between 2010 and 2012 and infest McDonald's Drinking Glasses and sprout lines of action figures before finally being disposed of a few months later to make way for the next big budget mega blockbuster money hoovering super ultra promoted tm product.
What weíre talking about is Princess of Mars, a low budget, three hundred thousand dollar, direct to video, B-movie produced by one of the modern poverty row houses, Asylum Pictures (you don't have to be crazy to work there, but it helps).
For the record, hereís the trailer:
And if you haven't seen it but are interested, then maybe you should stop reading now.
Listen, it's okay. You can stop reading. I don't get paid for these things, it doesn't really matter to me. I'm just working through ideas and notions here. Frankly, I'd love to be a paid writer, writing things that people really want to read, but that's not going to be happening anytime soon. In the meantime, I have a day job which keeps me going.
The thing about being a writer though, is that its not a choice, we write because that's what we have to do. Ideally, we write for money, or we write for an audience, but lacking that, we just write. Well, the way I see it, fame, fortune and audience eludes me. I'd sell out in a second, but no one is buying. So in the end, I write for myself, and have at least the satisfaction of work that pleases me.
I seriously have no idea who is reading this, or even why. In some ways, I find the thought vaguely disturbing. But really, you and I, we're coming to a threshold here. Just go watch the movie, don't read the spoilers. Even if you don't think you'll like it, watch it anyway. And if you have watched it, why are you here?
So seriously, shoo! Scat! Go away! I donít love you any more! Get away! Go home! Bad reader, Bad, Baaad reader! Shoo!
Oh all right. You had your warning.
You know, looking back, Burroughs hasn't had a terrific history with film. I say that with some mixed feelings. After all, Burroughs' most famous literary creation is also his most famous movie character - Tarzan. There've been a lot of Tarzan renditions in film and television, a lot of actors playing Tarzan, a lot of adventures and spin offs, and I imagine that Tarzan's film, television, radio and other media have made Burroughs and his estate a shipload of money. Probably more money than the actual novels themselves.
But then again, a lot of this stuff has been pretty damned terrible. There's been some godawful lunkheaded renditions of Tarzan, including Bo Derek's version, the Caspar Van Diem version, and likely some absolutely hideous stuff from the black and white days. Almost none of the Tarzan movies or television series have been truly faithful to the literary character. Often, the movie Tarzan has been an illiterate caveman.
Once you get past Tarzan though, the movie renditions of Burroughs thin right out. Off the top of my head, there are the Amicus productions of The Land that Time Forgot (1975), the People that Time Forgot (1977) and At the Earth's Core (1976) from the '70s. These were cheesy and awful. I suppose they were acceptable B-movie, kiddy mattinee fare for their time. But let's be honest here: These movies were a decade after Planet of the Apes and Harryhausenís Sinbad movies, and more or less contemporary with Lucas' Star Wars. Iím sorry, but by the standards of their time, they were archaic trash, brain-damagingly bad, bottom barrel stuff. They were relics of an era of terrible movies that were coming to a rapid end.
See, the thing is, once you get past Tarzan, Burroughs gets pretty exotic. Weíre talking foreign planets, strange lost cities, stranger races of aliens and humans, lots of monsters and dinosaurs. Things that just suck up a budget and are hard to do on a budget.
Tarzan? Well, all you really needed for Tarzan was a beefy guy and a loincloth. The entry requirements as they were, were pretty basic. Fill a sound stage with potted plants, throw in a vine or two, and some girl in a bikini, and you were set. In the literary version, Tarzan would occasionally tussle with dinosaurs (three novels) or strange lost races (another half dozen or so novels), none of those made it into the movies, or not for the longest time.
The rest of Burroughs' works? Well, that was just tougher. Burroughs' Barsoom was his second most valuable property, but it was an expensive proposition, once you got away from the novels and comics. And it was going to be hard to do it right.
Which of course, raises the question of what exactly is 'right?'
One could argue that the Amicus productions made a pretty sincere effort, at least at the start, to translate Burroughs ideas and scenes to the screen. On the other hand, they come across as tosh, and some of the stuff up on the screen comes off as stupid. It's possible that the subject matter just naturally comes off stupid -- The Land that Time Forgot is pretty dubious stuff on all kinds of levels. Still, I have the definite sense that the stupid got upped considerably -- one of the Amicus films has a fire breathing giant frog. The People that Time Forgot dispensed with both the dinosaurs and the peculiar winged maniacs for some strange but not very well described race of semi-asiatic thugs.
I don't know. Maybe you just have to go with the flow.
It can be a mugs game, especially with fanboys around. Obviously, translating a work from one medium to another is a tricky thing. There's things that just won't carry. There's things that won't work very well. George Pal did an adaptation of Doc Savage that seems to have sunk without a trace. It looks like pretty dubious stuff.
But then, that's the risk you take -- things will not translate directly. They have to be interpreted. And it's tricky to try to find the heart of a thing. What made Tim Burton's first Batman a work of genius true to the character, and Joel Schumacher's last Batman film a travesty? Was getting the costume right essential to a Spiderman movie? When it was unnecessary to the X-men movie and death for the Captain America movie?
Turning a beloved book into a movie often outrages fanboys. The dialogue is wrong, the scenes are wrong, subplots get left out. On the other hand, I found that the changes to Jaws and LA Confidential made those movies better than the books.
I think that the bottom line is that when we read a really good novel or a great comic, or some other form of terrific story, we get a movie in our head. Making an actual movie just won't match the movie in our head.
There are limitations in the movie medium -- they canít show internal monologues or the thoughts of the character, emotions are tough. Things that are described in a throwaway sentence pose big problems onscreen. Every visual element has to be put in place. A book can have a cast of hundreds, the movie has to squeeze in and pay for every actor. A book is as long as it needs to be, a movie is only 90 to 110 minutes, and so forth. It just doesnít translate as one to one.
So the one thing we can guarantee is that Asylum's Princess of Mars is just not going to be the same as the book. But for that matter, neither will the Disney John Carter of Mars.
So here we come to the fanboy crux. It's going to change. How important or relevant are those changes. Is it vital that John Carter be a civil war vet? Is it crucial that he be a 19th century man? How many arms do Tharks need? And how tall should they be? How many legs should a Thoat have? Do we have to paint every other human character red? It's a civilization of nudists - can we actually have a movie with willies and boobs hanging out everywhere?
But then, the more changes you make, the more you mess with that movie in peoples heads, the one they got from reading the book. On the Net, I've seen people outraged by the thought that John Carter wasn't a Civil War vet.
I can't see it myself. Who cares? It's not as if through the course of 11 books, Carter ever makes any detailed reference to the Civil War, the battles he's fought, it doesn't seem all that material to his character. But for some, it's blasphemy. Go figure.
I've sat through and engaged in debates with people who insisted that the movie version of Tharks needed to be fifteen feet tall. That's as tall as a lamp post. I've had to patiently explain the difficulties of proportions of getting such height disparities into a frame. It's easy to say fifteen feet tall in a book. Actually having that visually? Forget it.
Oh, and the human Martians have to be red - which means that all the Martian actors have to wear full body red makeup? Makeup that will have to be touched up for every scene? Makeup that will constantly rub off with every contact? Make up that they'll sweat off? That will choke their pores and induce heat stroke under heavy studio lights? That will have to be applied to dozens of actors? Makeup that will simply confuse an audience that isnít clued into the book? Yeah right.
And really, it was sort of a joke. Burroughs' Martians, his proud naked warriors, wearing feathers, his red men were drawn from his idea of Indians. The Red men of Mars were taken from the Red men of Earth. And he'd turned it on his head - the White race was decadent, dying and corrupt. The Red men were the vital healthy hybrids. There was a certain amount of socio-political comment in those choices he was making for 1912. How much of that comment is valid, or understandable in 2012? And if the underlying social commentary is no longer meaningful... Is there a point to bothering to have it in at all?
So there's all sorts of issues involved in translating the book to a movie -- things that are physically impossible to show, like Carter's internal monologues and narration; things that are practically impossible to show -- 15-foot-tall aliens; things that are impractical like four-armed men and eight-legged horses; things that are appallingly difficult like the Red men; things that no longer have a point or purpose -- the Red men again; things that don't make a damned bit of difference -- the Civil War background. So, all sorts of changes get made, things are judgment calls, and maybe it works.
Or maybe they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe John Carter is changed to a 1990s heroin addict, to make him more edgy and contemporary - and to leave the audience with some matrix-type suggestion that this may all be his hallucination. The name gets changed, because that's the easiest thing for a Hollywood writer to do to put his mark on a script -- change all the names. And the Tharks, instead of being fifteen foot tall and four armed, are all yellow faced midgets in striped pants. And maybe John gets some friends and companions, a little dog, a cowardly lion, a tin man and a scarecrow. Or he travels to Barsoom in a yellow submarine and the Zodangans all wear fetish boots, fur coats and lipstick. You think this is crazy stuff, go watch the Sandahl Bergman, 1980's version of H. Rider Haggard's She. There was a version of Wonder Woman where she was a blonde, short haired, small chested woman in a red jogging suit. It can get pretty crazy out there.
On the other hand, sometimes the changes just work. For me, the classic case of that would be the recent Watchmen movie. A movie that otherwise, is shot by shot faithful to the comic, but in the end does a huge swerve and throws out Moore's ending of the teleporting giant squid/psychic bomb entirely, and replaces it with a series of worldwide detonations as Adrian Veidt frames Doctor Manhattan directly. That upset the purists -- but you know what? It works. And it works better than Alan Moore's giant space squid. It's more elegant, more fitting to the characters of Manhattan and Veidt, more plausible within the context of the fictional world. Manhattan has been the dominating character in the Watchman world for almost half a century - half their world is already terrified of him, half of it bullies because of him, and every single person worries about him. So a plot that transforms that perception, rather than simply eases him out of the way, just works better. Purists and fanboys be damned, Alan Moore ought to be kicking himself that he didn't write it the way they filmed it.
So, expect changes to Princess of Mars, good and bad. Here, let me wreck things for you. In this movie is not a red skinned brunette, sheís blonde and very white. John Carter is an on duty soldier in Afghanistan from now, not a civil war vet from 1866. The Tharks are not fifteen feet tall. They have two arms. The Thoats have two legs not eight. There's not much in the way of fabulous dead cities.
If this is a deal breaker for you, well, sorry.
Also missing is the Martian dog Woola. Thereís no early fight with Great White Apes. There's no vast gathering of the Thark Horde. No subplot involving Sola and Sarkoja. Not much of one involving Tars Tarkas. There is no Helium-Zodanga war. We never get to Helium or Zodanga. Thereís no wedding subplot involving Dejah Thorisí unwilling engagement to Sab Than. Thereís no Thark-Warhoon alliance. Thereís no sack of Zodanga. Basically, the last third or last half of the book is basically not there.
Okay, well, having said all that, the story follows a lot of the book with pretty remarkable fidelity. It's all different, of course. But you can follow along the movie and point out where the book did the same thing, or same sort of thing, and the differences are sort of interesting.
Let me do a point-by-point breakdown of the plot points of the movie, compared to the book.
* Opening - John Carter is some sort of solo reconnaissance droid out in the wilds of Afghanistan, which I suspect, is going to leave anyone who knows anything about military operations laughing his guts out. He hooks up with an informant named Sarka, in order to bust some heroin dealers or kidnappers, it's not quite clear. Everything goes south, and he and his pal, Sarka, end up shooting each other. To be honest, this is a pretty weak opening -- it's supposed to be a tense, exciting action sequence, but the pacing is slack, the scene drags, the low budget is painfully apparent. It's like they filled in the read through. I found myself wondering why they were even bothering -- just get to Barsoom, don't kill ten minutes. Burroughs made his character a post-Civil War cowboy/prospector chased by Indians, in order to solidly ground his character. Practically nobody'd ever gone and had an adventure on another planet before, he had to gentle his audience into it. On the other hand, this is the 21st century, half our fictional adventures are on other planets.
* The opening closes with John Carter staring poignantly at the Moon. Fact is, Mars is just a star, not much to look at. The scene shifts to a bandaged and shot up Carter, he's practically getting his last rites. But then, it gets explained to him that it's all right, he's been digitized (whatever) and they're going to shoot him off to Mars. "But not the Mars you know. This is Mars 416, billions of light years away, the fourth planet of the Alpha Centauri system. We don't actually know what's there. We can't penetrate the atmosphere. But we figure we'll just shoot you over." I'm not going to swear that the dialogue is exactly that, but it's about equally inane. In the book of course, John Carter just panics and gets so scared that his astral body breaks away from the physical one, then he looks at Mars and wishes he was there... and it happens. That's all fine and well for 1912. But we in the 21st century demand our technobabble.
* The next scene is John Carter lying naked on the ground, while the Princess and Sab Than argue over what to do with him. Apparently he's materialized on her ship. Sab Than, the Princess's bodyguard wants him dead because he's obviously an assassin -- the naked teleporting unconscious kind. The Princess is not down with killing naked men. So they just agree to leave him out in the desert to die, nice of them. Carter seems to be semi-conscious for this, sort of aware of things going on, but unable to do much. Or he might be completely out. But I rather think that he's sort of aware, and that this incident is what causes him to imprint so strongly on the Princess and to get so involved later on. It's not anywhere in the book, but it's not a bad scene, and it contributes to the movie, I think.
* John Carter eventually wakes up alone, and discovers that he can jump like the Hulk. He's pretty thrilled by this, and proceeds to jump all over the place. This is sort of in the book -- Carter wakes on Mars, discovers that his mildest step seems to have him bouncing all over the place, but it's played differently. In the book, Carter is reduced to crawling carefully, trying to get anywhere. So, it's sort of the same scene, but handled very differently. In the movie, Carter's jumping ability is going to be a lot more plot important than it is in the book.
* Eventually, movie Carter finds what looks like an artificial shelter in the rocks. He checks it out, first sign of life and all, and finds eggs. He steals one of the shelter's sheets for a loincloth. In the book, of course, Carter while crawling along notices the only artificial structure in sight and makes his way to it. Arriving at the building, he discovers it's a hatchery. Intrinsically, the scene is the same, its just a budget issue. The movie doesn't have the money or resources to build an entire hatchery, so it's just a shelter in the rocks with some eggs.
* Someone throws a spear. John Carter jumps and then he stops, realizing he's surrounded. A tusked ugly, a Thark, retrieves the spear with a little Thark fetus on the end of it. He hangs his head in shame. Carter waits, one of the uglies comes up. He says something inane to the ugly, but luckily, no one can tell. The ugly takes him by the hand and leads him off. This is pretty much what happens in the book, but here, I think they're trying to be too close to the book. In th book, heís looking at the eggs when the Tharks come up on him, startled, he gives one of his amazing leaps, leaving them dumbfounded. They chase, he's not sure what's going on, and Tars Tarkas is able to take him by the hand and lead him back. So, as I said, pretty much the same. On the other hand, if you haven't read the book, the movie scene may not work for you. It's not really clear that he's jumped away from the eggs, or that the Tharks are astonished by his prodigious jump. When he stands surrounded by Tharks with guns trained on him, you sort of wonder why he just doesn't jump out of trouble. When you think about it, obviously he knows he can't outjump a bullet. But as constructed, it seems a little off. Perhaps not enough time to make the visual points obvious -- the astonishing leap away from the eggs, the Tharks flabbergasted, Carter's realization that if he tries to jump again he could get shot... Or perhaps, oddly, trying to be too faithful.
* From here, Carter is brought back to camp and made to show his jumping ability. More or less like in the book. Haja Obol, the big fat nasty Thark leader shows up early. Carter ends up killing a Thark who pisses him off, which elevates his status among them. Recognizeably from the book.
* Not so recognizeable from the book - Carter faces off against this obnoxious Thark kid who wants to fight him. A giant spider-thing appears out of the sand, spears the kid, and Carter is forced to fight it barehanded with only his chains. It's not clear if the spider was just there and they've stumbled into a bad scene. Or if the Tharks have put John in with the spider and the obnoxious kid because they want to see a little blood sport. It seems spontaneous. But when the camera pulls back a bit, we see a lot of Tharks standing around on the cliff, waving their arms as if cheering with excitement. So I'm inclined to think this is deliberate blood sport. There's no close equivalent here in the book -- except possibly some later scenes in the Warhoon arena. But what the hell, the scene is Burroughsian in nature, it's got a monster, some exciting derring do, and establishes Carter as more than a pretty face.
* Unfortunately, the dying spider monster calls its buddies - so maybe it was a spontaneous attack rather than a blood sport thing. The next thing you know, the Tharks are faced with an onslaught of giant ants which we find out later are called 'Spiderlings'. Carter makes signs like he wants to help, the head Thark tosses him a rifle, and they start firing. The scene ends with a canyon full of dead spiderlings, and the Tharks are feeling pretty good about John fighting by their side. There's no actual equivalent scene in the book. In the book, Carter tries to flee, ends up tussling with some Great Apes and impressing the Tharks. There's a much later scene where he faces down a horde of Warhoons, but really, that's reaching. What the movie scene is really about is Carter coming to be respected and adopted by the Tharks, which is essentially a process that happens in the book. So it's the same sort of idea, overall, it's just achieved in different ways.
* Then they get back to the settlement or whatever, and there's the 'alien cuisine' scene. It's not in the book, it's just one of those sci fi cliches. Alien food is disgusting, we get it. Carter is forced, at knifepoint, to eat a worm. Suddenly, he can speak the language. Tars Tarkas introduces himself. The worm is pretty much the babblefish out of Hitchhikers, and it's just a plot device. In the book, Carter spends a lot of time with the Tharks and learns the language the hard way. The movie just doesn't have time for that. Baby has to grow up and start talking real fast. It's one of those necessary economies that movies have to make. Of course, Burroughs cheated too, he threw in telepathy to make it easier to learn the language.
* Carter's now in the tribe, as it were, things are going along nicely. Then an airship comes along. Tars Tarkas warns Carter to say out of it. The Tharks then proceed to shoot up the airship with superior marksmanship, but are unable to capture the derelict. This is more or less what happens in the book, though Carter is more a befuddled bystander watching the proceedings, rather than being warned off.
* Carter, not part of the battle, decides to do some peeking. He uses his prodigious jumping activity to leap to a good vantage point. There, spying on the burning ship, he sees the Princess and her bodyguard from the opening scene, arguing with big gestures, with an old couple. Finally, the Princess takes off in a flyer. The old couple prepares to flee in the other flyer, but instead, the hooded bodyguard points a gun at them, forces them off and shoots them. Then he flies off. This just doesnít happen in the book. I have to wonder though, why didnít the bodyguard just go off with the Princess, since we see the flyers can hold two people? Why split up like that? And on a ship that size, why arenít there more emergency flyers?
* Carter leaps on board the ship and rescues the couple from the burning airship. Well, rescue is maybe a little much. They're dying from gunshot wounds, although the movie's budget doesn't actually extend to showing any wounds or even blood. For getting shot from close range by a Martian rifle, their robes are remarkably intact. Maybe they were just rented and they'd lose the deposit if they messed them up? Anyway, Carter gets them off the ship, and the old man, Kantos Khan reveals that he's the engineer in charge of the Atmosphere Plant and tells Carter a nursery rhyme before he dies. It seems important to him, because he repeats it several times:
Day by DayIt would have been a lot more impressive if it hadn't been such a stupid sounding ditty. But what can you do. These scenes aren't in the sequence of the novel however. But in the book, there is a scene much further along, where John Carter, while wandering, comes across the atmosphere plant and stays there overnight. While there he catches a flash of the secret code that opens the gates. Realizing that the Plant operator will kill him to preserve the secret, Carter sneaks off during the evening. So essentially, what we've got is an analogous scene in the movie, which provides the same information for the same purpose.
Night by Night
We Keep the Air
Clean and Bright
* Carter then follows along the path of the flyer, eventually tracking down the Princess. It's not a happy meeting. She's seen him on her ship, and now he's with the Tharks. She doesn't believe a word he says. The rest of the Tharks are closing in. Eventually, he knocks her out and claims her as his own prize. It's not in the book at all, of course. In the novel, the Tharks just shoot up the ship and take her prisoner while Carter looks on. She makes a passionate speech, a Thark punches her, and John Carter comes to her defense, which amuses everyone. Still, it's actually a pretty good scene in the movie, and it works. I'm not going to complain.
* From there on, the Princess is travelling as a Prisoner, and John Carter is trying to make time with her. She throws her chamberpot on him, calls him a worthless lout. He says the Tharks are honourable, and he saves her from flying bugs. Tars Tarkas watches everything with a knowing grin, but he finds himself warming up to the Princess too.
* Thereís another attack of the spiderlings during this time. These are flyers, some of them big enough to pluck a full grown Thark and carry him off. Tars Tarkas refuses to let the Princess out of the cage, but says John can take the key off his dead body. Later, John Carter points a rifle at Tarkas, but blows away a flying critter instead. Later, Carter tries to talk Tarkas into letting them go, but he'll have none of it. The Princess steals a knife and appears to stab Tarkas in the back, but really, she's saving him from a spider thing, so after that, he lets her out of the cage. None of this is really in the book.
* While all this is going on, Sab Than lurks in the background. There's a scene of him spying on the Tharks. So we know he's still around, and he's bad. Sab Than is in the novel, as a villainous Zodangan Prince and groom to Dejah Thoris. But in the novel, he doesn't show up until deep in, and he's not well described -- he's basically a later plot development. Here, Sab Than seems to be the Princess's bodyguard initially, so he's there right from the start. It's a significant shift from the novel. By the same token, Kantos Kan's character, the robed guy who dies after imparting nursery rhymes in the movie, is significantly larger and much more different.
* Eventually, our crew gets to the headquarters of the Thark, and the throne room of Tal Hajus, the ruler of all Thark. We saw him get hauled in earlier on to demonstrate his jumping abilities to John Carter. Somehow, he's managed to get home well ahead of Tars Tarkas and his friends, which seems a bit weird. I guess those palanquins can really just motor along like crazy. It seems weird, though I suppose if we think about it, Tarkas actually went home after capturing Carter, and it's his capture of the Princess that motivates him to go to Thark Central. It's sort of explained, but not terribly clear. In the novel, of course, all roads lead to Thark Central, it's the big seasonal/ceremonial gathering. And of course, in the novel Thark Central is the ancient abandoned city of Thark, temporarily occupied, and pretty grand in scope. But hey, they've got budget limitations in the film.
* Tal Hajus in the movie is about the same as he is in the novel - a big gross tyrant, trading on Tars Tarkas loyalty, and a right old bastard. Tarkas is demoted, Carter goes to the gladiator pits and Thoris is going to be a concubine, a mutilated concubine. It's reasonably close to the book, although the Princess, I think is elsewhere, getting moved along on the Zodanga plotline.
* Now, what happens next is a complete swerve from the book.Sab Than shows up, chained up in the pits, and scheduled to fight Carter as a gladiator the next day. Carter's good with that, he's looking forward to killing him. Sab Than takes off his hood... And it's Sarka from Afghanistan. He's the first human test subject! He got to Barsoom first, infiltrated the Princess's crew. Well, now Carter's really looking forward to chopping him into pieces.
* Next day - gladiator arena, which is basically just outdoors in a small natural depression or gravel pit. It's not like it was in the book, but hey, time and money folks, time and money. John Carter is there, chained up so that he can't jump away. Sab Than/Sarka walks out. Carter is ready to fight. Instead though, Sab Than says "Hey doofus, if you've got a cool super power, maybe you shouldn't let people know about it." He's not chained up, so he just jumps away. And you know what? It's a surprise. I should have seen it coming, what with him being an earthman, but I didn't. And the fact that the fight we've been led to expect doesn't happen is as surprising to us as it is to Carter. So it's a big departure from the book, but dammit, I liked it.
* Things happen in a hurry. A humiliated, demoted Tarkas is thrown into the Arena next, but Carter won't kill him. Instead, after some swinging, Carter knocks Tarkas into a wall (he is superhuman on Barsoom after all). Then he throws a rock, knocking Tal Hajus off his throne. Tars Tarkas challenges, Tal Hajus gets lawyerly, and Tars Tarkas kills him and takes over as the big chief of the Tharks. I seem to recall in the book that the big throwdown between Tal Hajus and Tars Tarkus was a lot more impressive. But hey, the actor playing Tal Hajus is a fat guy in heavy robes and a heavier mask, he's just not going to be up for a real fight scene.
* Meanwhile, Sola rescues the Princess, who is apparently being tortured by having milk poured over her. Oh, those wacky aliens. Still, the Princess looks appropriately terrified and sells it well. But from there, she's abducted to the Atmosphere Plant by Sab Than, who tells her he's working with John Carter. Sab Than also tells her that a) Carter died; and b) too bad the poor sap was in love with her. Okay, we've left the novel behind at this point and are flying without a net.
* Sab Than uses the Princess to get into the Atmosphere Plant and John Carter sneaks in after him. I'' not impressed by the security there. Sab Than then holds the place hostage, demanding that the Princess love him and marry him. That doesnít work, so he wrecks the atmosphere generator. Oops! Barsoom is doomed. But there's a backup generator (revealed earlier in exposition). So the race is on to find the generator and start it up before the planet dies, and to stop Sab Than in the meantime. We've actually flash forwarded to the end of the novel. In the novel, it's a denouement - Carter is living happily ever after, when it's discovered that the Atmosphere Plant operator has been murdered and the air is running out. The plant has to be restarted, but no one can get in. Luckily, Carter has the door combination from his earlier encounter. He races across a dying planet to open the door, just makes it, and as he does so... flashes back to earth.
*Thatís basically what happens here, with some differences. The murderer of the Plant operator is Sab Than who does it onscreen. Thereís a fair bit of time, and some pretty inept swordplay as Sab Than and John Carter duke it out. Actually, I was okay with that -- both of these guys are from Earth, neither with a plausible fencing background, so their swordsmanship wouldn't be much better than mediocre. On the other hand, on this planet, they're both superhumanly strong, so you'd figure they've both been relying on that. A flying bug critter comes into play, and Sab Than is defeated. Carter rushes to the Princess, gives her the nursery rhyme, and she starts up the backup generator. Just as the world is saved, Carter flashes back to Earth. The final shot is of him wandering around Afghanistan, dreaming of returning to his Princess.
So basically, the dialogue is different, a lot of the pacing is different. But most of the key scenes have recogniseable counterparts with the book. The story moves along with the same breakneck pace as the book and with a lot of the same flavour. The emotional heart is the same. It's a pretty faithful adaptation, and even more it's a good adaptation. It's an intelligent adaptation that makes pretty good choices as to what to keep and what to let go, what changes to make.
But beyond that, it's just a good movie on its own. I think a big part of it is that what the book gets right, the movie gets right. A lot of Asylum movies I've seen have tended to be unfocused. Too many characters, we don't really get to know them all that well, and so we don't really engage strongly with them as one damned thing after another is going on.
Here there are only a few strong central characters - John Carter, Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas, and the film spends most of its time developing their characters and their relationships. Fundamentally, the book is a romance and the movie doesnít forget that. It develops that romance and does it organically. It's also a story about friendship, and that's also developed well.
There isn't an exact correspondence to the book, but I think it keeps the spirit and flavour of things. What's central to both the book and the movie is that love doesn't blossom automatically for Carter and the Princess. Or perhaps it does, but even so, they have to learn about each other, learn to trust each other, have missteps and awkwardness. The romance between Carter and his Martian Princess is really the heart of the novel, and it's given proper respect in the movie. The relationship with Tarkas is allowed to continue to develop, with Tarkas emerging as a full character, and with friendship developing first with Carter and then with Dejah Thoris.
I suppose now that I think of it, this is really what makes Princess of Mars stand out beyond the other Asylum movies that Iíve seen. It's a movie with a heart, an emotional core about love and friendship, rather than just characters we don't particularly know or care about rushing through action scenes. Its what made the book work so well, and it works here.
That's the biggest thing. But the truth is that I think they got a hell of a lot of stuff right, or at least did it decently. The plot swerve with Sab Than works. The Thark masks work, a lot of the visuals are impressive.
Frankly, it's the best goddammed movie that I've seen from Asylum pictures, so there.
Now, having said that, let's take a look at some of the specific details.
Traci Lords as the Princess of Mars
Traci Lords has had an interesting life, no question. I don't need to delve into her pornstar past, her position as one of the greatest of the late eighties pornqueens, the whole underage scandal. That's been done to death
Traci Lords has complained about being known as a former porn star. She points out that Tim Allen isn't known as a former drug dealer. Of course, the difference is that Tim Allen was a mediocre and unsuccessful drug dealer, we're not talking Pablo Escobar here. Lords, when she was in porn, was the top of her field, and she left it in a spectacularly dramatic way.
In any event, she's kept the name, and moved on to a minor but very respectable career as an actress doing legitimate film and television work, starring in B-movies and Art house productions, and doing a very decent job as an actress. I've always thought of her a somewhat underrated talent.
Interestingly, despite or perhaps because of her baggage, Traci Lords has more name recognition and is arguably a bigger star than anyone in the mainstream Disney version of John Carter of Mars. Let's face it: No one is going to be renting a DVD or going to the movie Theatre based on Taylor Kitsch's name, that's just a fact.
She plays Dejah Thoris. The big complaint? She's not a red skinned brunette. Ah well.
You know, she wore this headband all the way through the movie, and I started to wonder if she was actually wearing a blonde wig. I don't know what her real hair is like, but I kept getting reminded of the days of the old cowboys and indians movies, where costumers would put long haired wigs on italians to play Indians, and to keep the wigs in place, they'd use headbands. Lord's headband made me wonder if the same thing was being done. I have been told on good authority, however, that she is a natural blonde. Go figure. Probably not a wig.
Lords' performance as Thoris is grim. Which stands to reason. In the novel, Dejah Thoris is not in a happy place. She's captive of the Tharks, on her way to being tortured to death. Escaping, she falls into the hands of the Zodangans. She's just having one bad day after the other. It's pretty much the same in the movie -- shot up by Tharks, punched out by Carter, kept in a cage, terrorized by giant bugs, tortured by Tal Hajus minions, fighting to save the world and restart the generator. There's good a reason that most of Traci Lords' expressions in this movie seem to be variations on frightened, pissed off and worried.
Still, every now and then, she gets to do something a little bit different. When she's holding a sword on John Carter, she's convincingly tough. Cuddling up to him as they ride a giant bird, she's engagingly content. Sneaking up on Tars Tarkas with a knife, she's convincingly menacing and gleeful.
Her rendition of the character has a lot of the strength and courage of the woman in the novel, the development of her relationship with Carter is convincingly played, and she's given more to do than she has in the novel.
So, I'm okay with her. Now, is she a Nicole Kidman or a Merill Streep or a Sigourney Weaver, probably not. And some people are going to dislike her just because she's Traci Lords, but frankly, she does the job, she does it well, I'm happy.
Antonio Sabato, Jr. as John Carter
I suppose Brendan Fraser could have done it better. Or maybe Brad Pitt or Val Kilmer. Tim Roth would have been a huge mistake. Kevin Sorbo would have pulled it off. But so what, this is the guy we've got.
I'll hand it to Sabato, he works out, and he's not afraid to show it. He spends a fair bit of the movie wearing a lot less than Traci Lords.
As to his performance, it's not bad. He plays a version of John Carter I think that Burroughs would have appreciated. Friendly, smart, murderous and bloodthirsty at points, but he doesn't make a big deal out of it. He plays Carter as an engaging everyman, just your average guy next door, with superhuman powers and the occasional homicidal streak. Which is basically what the guy in the novel is.
His performance reminds me of Kevin Sorbo in Hercules. Very modern, very casual. He's an easygoing hero, not too formal.
I'm not going to waste a lot of time, it just works okay for me. There may be points where he drops lines or flubs, but its not so bad that we notice or care, and he never hits a patently false note.
Tars Tarkas and the Tharks
I'm all over the place on these guys, and not for failing to be fifteen feet tall and four armed. Let me set out the good and bad.
* Good The mask: it's actually a very nicely designed mask, one of the best I've seen in a long time, and it'll be a shame if Don Post or whoever it is that does Monster Masks doesn't come out with a line of them. The mask erases the actor's nose, leaving a broad flat plate, the effect is creepy and inhuman -- remove a central facial feature and its unsettling. Think about the noseless Voldemort from Hairy Potter. As humans, we have expectations of what a face is supposed to look like -- proportions, objects in certain places, start messing with that and it gets weird. Of course, you can't really erase the nose -- the mask just sits forward on the actor's face. But then, that produces startlingly deep set eyes, and a strongly receding lower jaw, so it changes the conformity of the entire face creating a very alien looking being. The face is more reptilian than human. Meanwhile, the tusks add dimension and distraction to the face, and as a bonus, they look fairly organic, you can see the rigid mandibles that the tusks grow out of, under the skin, like cheekbones gone horribly wrong. And the spiky head thing also works very well, distracting us from the human head inside and giving it its own character. All of it combines to give us a creature which is impressively fierce and alien. Like I said, best mask I've seen in quite a while. I want one for Halloween.
* Bad Some of the rest of the costume just doesn't hold up. The Tharks dress like Steppe Turks, I can live with that. But in some shots, it looks like they're wearing towels for their feet.
* Good Getting back to the mask again. It's a half mask sort of thing, a la Doctor Who, Planet of the Apes, etc. Advantage of the half mask was that it left the actor's eyes and mouth open, allowing the actor to actually act. Makes the characters expressive, in ways that a rigid mask, or even an animatronic mask/mechanical face just cannot be. Matt Lasky in particular takes advantage of it, and his Tars Tarkas is very expressive.
* Bad Sometimes the matching makeup around the eyes just didn't cover, the same with the mouth, sometimes the back or bottom of the mask sticks out. Sometimes the Tharks show pink ankles or calves.
* Good One thing I really was impressed by, considering the budget, was that a lot of the masks seemed to be very individualized. I counted at least eight different masks with variations on head spikes and arrangements, tusk sizes and orientation -- it wasn't all from a single mold, or if it was, some effort was made to give the Tharks we saw individualism. With Tars Tarkas, Haj Obol and Sola of course that goes without saying. And the other Tharks generally didn't have much to do, but it was nice to see that attention to detail.
* Bad Some details were not attended to -- in particular, Tars Tarkas' mask had the latex cast line running right across the center. It was obvious and distracting, and should have been obscured. Also, Tars Tarkas in some scenes is clearly a victim of wobbly tusk syndrome. I get the feeling that his mask was deteriorating, either during the course of a day's shooting, or perhaps overall from wear and tear, and that they'd have to try and shoot around it. At points, you're sitting there wondering if his tusk is going to fall off.
* Good I actually liked Matt Lasky's performance as Tars Tarkas. Burroughs' Tars was a fairly grim and dower individual. Lasky's Tarkas is much more outgoing, more extroverted, inclined to laugh. He gets a lot of good lines. At one point, after Carter's been accepted by the Tharks and Tarkas is explaining how he inherits the rank and possessions of the man he killed, Carter asks if he had anything. Tarkas replies "He had a lot of debts." It was funny.
But like Burroughs Tarkas, he's also a very loyal subject, an honourable warrior, and very much a creature of Thark culture. He's loyal to Tal Hajus, because that's how their society works. He likes John Carter and comes to like Dejah Thoris, but he won't allow them to sneak off.
The Tharks found cruelty hilarious, and that kind of spartan, cruel, harshness actually comes out well in Lasky's Tarkas. Seeing one of his men get tossed into a wall, he laughs uproariously A chamber pot gets thrown at John Carter? Hilarious. It's a morbid humour, at one point, he invites Carter to take the key from his dead body. Lasky's Tarkas grins and laughs, quite unlike Burroughs' Tarkas.
But, Burroughs had a lot more space to develop his Tarkas, to give him an inner life, his own romance, his own subplots and quest. There's not nearly enough space for that in the movie. So Lasky has to make Tarkas big in other ways, and in taking the character in this direction I think he wins the audience. The movie really is only about three protagonists - Carter, the Princess and Tars Tarkas, and a more restrained, more Burroughs version just wouldn't have worked as well, either for the character or for the movie.
I found Lasky's Tarkas a bigger departure than Sabato's Carter. But I also liked it. Lasky was a professional wrestler, so although some of his lines were forced, he was able to give his character an engaging physicality. It's tough to have to act through a heavy latex mask, but Lasky does okay.
The Villains and Supporting Characters
Because so much of the story revolves around Carter, Thoris and Tarkas the villains really don't get all that much to do.
Tal Hajus for instance, shows up for maybe three scenes -- to watch John Carter jump around at the start of the movie, in the throne room pronouncing sentence on our heroes, and later at the games where he meets his untimely end. What can we say about Tal Hajus? He's six kinds of ugly, four kinds of mean, he's suitably menacing, and he's got a great line in his final threat to Dejah Thoris "Princess of lies! Your lips will utter no more falsehoods. But I promise, those lips will still be put to use" Or something along those lines.
The Tal Hajus mask is impressive - it's a scarred and broken face, but now bloated. You can look at that and tell this guy was the survivor of some hellacious fights, a really tough customer. But now gone to seed and coasting. But he suffers from Low Budget Tyrant disease. His throne room is smaller than your living room, his retinue is four guys carrying a palanquin and a couple of slave girls. Guys like that need to be big, and the budget just can't carry it off. Instead, he's just fat, mean and ugly.
His resolution is anticlimactic. But as I said -- Mitchell Gordon who plays the character is a fat guy, he's covered in a very heavy costume, he's wearing a big heavy latex mask with all sorts of makeup, and it's probably a hundred degrees. I'm figuring the actor was probably good for saying his lines, but anything more strenous like a fight scene might kill him.
Sarka/Sab Than played by Chacko Vadaketh fares almost as badly. He's not onscreen a lot. And most the time that he is, he's hooded, which is death to work with. He gets to be the bad guy on Earth and on Barsoom. But to be honest, he doesn't really get to do much with the role. Nature of the part in this case, they weren't telling his story. He may be a really good actor, but this just isn't the role that he'll get to show that. As it is, he gets the job done, and most of what I'll have to say about the character comes later.
As for the rest, Noelle Perris plays Sola. I donít think she's got more than two or three lines in the whole movie, though she shows up a lot. For what it's worth, she's the best looking Thark, with a statuesque but shapely figure, delicately curved tusks and graceful spikes. The character of Sola was a lot bigger in the novel, and had a couple of subplots of her own. Here, she doesnít have too much to do, there's a little bit of a suggestion of something going on with Tarkas, but that's it.
As for the rest -- Well, the atmosphere plant guys - Kantos Kan played by Matt Lagan and Atol Nard played by Dean Kreyling... Well, the less said the better. They're there to take up space in the movie and move bits of plot along. They may be nice guys and great actors, but this isn't the movie for them to show it.
One thing that went very very well was the location shooting. A lot of the movie was shot around the Vasquez rocks, which are some very weird looking, tortured, very alien-planetish geography. It's visually impressive as hell, and it served as a guide for the occasional CGI landscape.
They did work it to death. If you're watching carefully, a lot of the scenes are just the Vasquez rocks from slightly different angles.
The famous Bronson canyon and caves, a Hollywood staple of B-movies since 1919 also makes an appearance. Thereís a reason for that. It's just cool and weird and exotic looking -- perfect for horror, sci fi and westerns.
Beyond that, there's fairly good use of CGI. In a lot of the outdoor scenes, the sky is adjusted with CGI to show faint stars and nebula shining through in daylight. It's subtle but effective, leaving the impression this is an alien world in a distant part of space.
And there's a really nice shot of Tars Tarkas' home base, a building nestled in a scarlet canyon. Basically, the visuals are great. They add a terrific amount of production value to the film, and they add it cleanly and naturally.
Compare this with the Amicus productions all shot on soundstages, or compare it with some of the other Asylum films, and the visual and location aspects really stand out.
Of course, Burroughs gave us more than this -- he gave us eight-legged Martian horses, ten-legged tigers, Martian dogs the size of ponies with frog mouths full of tusks, and skull-faced rats. All of these creatures exotic, multi-legged and huge Any of those show up here? Nope.
Instead, what we get are attacks of a giant spider, a horde of ants, some flying mosquito critters, and two-legged bird things instead of thoats.
Well, CGI critters are expensive, and i'ts even more expensive to try and develop them on your own. I get the impression that the CGI monsters that we saw were just taken off the shelf. A CGI giant spider shows up in a few of the Asylum movies, so maybe they've just got that package lying around. As for the ants and mosquitos, maybe they just bought it cheap somewhere.
Sorry, but recycling FX footage is a longstanding low budget Hollywood tradition. The enlarged lizards from the Victor Mature One Million BC went on to have long hollywood careers of their own, as did the stop motion dinos from Planet of the Dinosaurs, and the spaceships from Battle Beyond the Stars. It's not the greatest thing in the world, and if it's the only thing you've got, you're in trouble. But I'm not going to beat them up for it.
And hell, at least they're multi-legged critters. Burroughs himself occasionally snuck in giant spiders or insects. And other writers, notably Tolstoy in Alita, have described Martian Fauna as spiders. Spiders and Mars? They got history together, just ask David Bowie.
The big weakness though, is the atmosphere plant. Looks like crap from the outside. Looks like more crap on the inside. The atmosphere plant interiors are some factory or water pumping station, so we seem to have English lettering all over the place. There's tubes, gangways, pipes and doorways, all of it looking pretty earthlike. They try and make the best of the geography of the place. But so it goes. And the CGI doesn't help - Traci Lords' frantic gestures as she's trying to tune up the back-up generator are a nice idea but it just doesn't carry.
The Big Swerve
This is the part that probably offends the purists the most, both in terms of the misuse of an existing character from the book, and the creation of a massive plot twist that departs completely from the novel. This is also the giant spoiler that you shouldn't tell people about.
Basically, the really big mcguffin is that John Carter is not the first earthman on Barsoom. Nope, when he's lying there on the hospital bed, they tell him that the procedure works just fine. They already tried it on a human. As it turns out, that human was a guy named Sarka, who was responsible for getting John Carter blown to pieces in the opening scenes. And as it turns out, Sarka is actually Sab Than, the hooded villain, nemesis, stalker and princess molestor, who is continually lurking in the background as John Carter wanders about Barsoom.
I'll be honest. I didn't see it coming. I had a big 'Whoa!' when it got revealed.
Sab Than, up to the moment he pulls his scarf off, is always hooded, with only his eyes revealed, so I figured he was maybe a Thark detusked, or just weird, or something like that, or maybe it was some other plot point.... hideous scar, etc.
But really, I didn't expect it, and once it happens, it explains a few things (like an early scene where Sab Than argues for putting a naked weaponless John Carter to death for no good reason), and it's well played in follow up (there's a great scene where John Carter is chained up in the pit to keep him from escaping, and Sab Than/Sarka is brought out to duel him. Sab than/Sarka says "Hey shmuck, if you've got a superpower, don't reveal it until you needed." And leaps to freedom, leaving John Carter stuck with his chains.
It sets the two of them up as true bitter rivals on just about every level, and it makes for a more interesting battle because by this time, Carter's well established as fairly superhuman. It even sort of works in justifying or explaining why the two men are relatively lousy swordsmen.
I dunno. I kind of liked it as a plot twist. It tightened and organized the plot quite a bit. tTe movie essentially drops the entire Helium/Zodangan war subplot, which really dominated half the book and is the genesis of the Sab Than character. Jettison that subplot, and you've got Sab Than hanging and without a point, so it actually breathes a bit of life and interest into the proceedings.
It also helps to make the atmosphere plant more of a focal point for the plot resolution, whereas in the novel, it was mainly just a minor subplot notable for constituting the denouement. This Sarka/Sab Than's earthman machinations are oriented towards gaining control of the plant.
I dunno. I'm not really a purist about these things. As Iíve said, in terms of the Watchman movie, I thought the most brilliant thing about it was the way they screwed with Allan Moore's ending. Truthfully, Moore's ending was terrible, and the movies was way better in terms of coherence and elegance of the story. So a really good swerve is a thing of beauty to me, and not a rape of canon. Of course, a bad swerve is just a car wreck.
For better or worse, I liked the Princess of Mars 'sab than' swerve. Of course, there are downsides I don't like. The timelines and rationale seems screwed up. Why send Sarka to Barsoom. He's not US military. At best, he's merely a ground level informant/contact. At worst, he's a terrorist operative. He's not even an American, and sure as hell, he's not particularly trained for something like this. So why even bother to send him?
Also, he must have been sent months before Carter, maybe years, because he knows the language, he wears the clothes, he's insinuated himself in Helium's command structure as a royal bodyguard... that doesn't happen overnight. Whilst Carter bumbles around finding his way, Sarka treats the place like his backyard. Was there a space warp, some sort of time dilation. I dunno. Maybe I missed it in some technobabble.
Finally, Sab Than's character sort of goes nutzoid at the end, and his plot makes no sense. He proceeds to wreck the atmosphere plant. Why? So he can hold the planet hostage and force them to make him king of Barsoom... which he'll rule from the impregnable fortress in the middle of nowhere, which is the atmosphere plant. Trouble is, who's he going to hold hostage if everyone dies in a few hours. Without the plant, Barsoom has maybe four hours of atmosphere. Hell, the people around the plant start choking in the first twenty minutes. He hasn't even delivered an ultimatum yet. By the time the Barsoomian governments have realized what he's doing and decided to surrender, it'll be too late. And turning the atmosphere plant into his personal fortress pleasure dome while he rules the planet.... well, that'll last until he goes to sleep, or his food is poisoned, or a concubine slits his throat, etc. And anyway, even if it does work, he spends the rest of his life as a his own hostage in there. Basically, its a really really really bad plan. Particularly when he seems to want to wreck the back up, which would mean everyone dies, period.
These are big problems for me, and undermine the movie a bit. I think that the film makers were hoping for a combination of technobabble and fast pacing to keep us from thinking too much about it. Fair enough.
The Otis Adelbert Kline Unconnection
One thing I did like about the swerve is that while it seemed to go right out of Burroughs, it darted right into Otis Adelbert Kline's Swordsman of Mars. There are several similarities between Kline's novels and Asylum's PoM.
For one thing, in Kline's novels, the earthmen are deliberately sent to Mars, projected there by earthly mad science, unlike Burroughs where Carter just wishes really hard. The method varies from book to book -- in the first book, Swordsman of Mars, our hero merely steps into the body of a willing Martian. In the second book, Outlaw of Mars, he's physically transported to Mars by a sort of psychic machine.
In this movie, it's not exactly clear. John Carter's lying in a hospital bed, shot to pieces, and as it's explained, apparently he's digitized and projected to Mars somehow, as a sort of information broadcast, or something. There's just enough technobabble to establish they're doing it, though not quite what they're doing or how, exactly.
But then again, the 'projection' motif shows up in a lot of Sword and Planet stuff. Robert E. Howardís Almuric is projected there by a crude teleport. Lovecraftís Randal Carter gets to the Dreamland by sleeping really hard, and later travels by astral projection. Lin Carterís protagonist in the Green Star series astral projects. So the fact that Asylum's Carter gets projected to another planet by deliberate human action and mysterious technology isn't that big a deal.
But there's another overlap - the 'Dueling Earthman' motif: Kline's Swordsman of Mars, his hero, Jerry Thorne is the second earthman to Mars. The first guy there has actually gone rogue and is trying to take over. So Kline's novel is about two earthmen battling it out on Mars, much as is done here.
Of course, there are differences. In Kline's novel, the identity and malicious intent of the other Earthman is out front right away, and our hero has to contend with that. On the other hand, the Asylum plotline is handled more mysteriously, we get the opening scene with John Carter and his earthly nemesis Sarka, and then we're only told of a previous teleportation with another earthman. Later, a hooded Sab Than is sort of a lurking figure showing up again and again. When it's finally revealed he's the villain from Earth, it's a surprise, and it builds from there.
Again, though, it's basically a coincidence. Here's the problem for the script - the novel contains all sorts of great big epic stuff that they just don't have the budget for. The duel with three swordsmen, the great unification of Thark and Warhoon hordes, the Helium fleet, the battle of Zodanga, we're talking epic stuff here, cast of thousands. So they have to scale down the climax. But the trouble with John Carter, in both the novel and the movie, is he's superhuman. The John Carter in the novel can kill a green man with one punch, wrestle a white ape and jump like a mofo. In the movie, he jumps around like the hulk, strangles spider monsters with his bare hands and can throw a full grown Thark into the side of a cliff.
How do you make your climax interesting or exciting when your protagonist is Superhuman? Well, you can go the Shwarzenegger route and have him fight a lot of enemies -- a whole crowd. Or you can give him an antgonist who is also superhuman. John Carter's superhuman because he's from Earth. So logically, the thing to do is to make the antagonist from Earth, and the recipient of similar powers. Of course, once youíve made that decision, then you have to work your way backwards in the story, and lay in some Earthside history between villain and hero, and lay some plot points to establish how he gets to Mars first, without being too obvious about it. So it's all driven by story mechanics, when you think about it.
Finally, the giant flightless bird/reptiles that take the place of Thoats in PoM are very similar to the Rodals and Koree -- giant flightless bird/reptiles, that show up in Swordsman and Outlaw of Mars. For the record, hereís a description of Klineís Rodals:Those nearest the oasis were mounted on the backs of large, two legged creatures that were neither true birds nor reptiles, though they partook of the natures of both. They stood about five feet at the shoulder, but their long necks, covered with bright green scales, held their ugly reptilian heads to a height of ten feet. These heads were much like those of large serpents, except that they were tipped by crests of curling white plumes, and there was a sharp, straight horn on the snout of each. Their birdlike bodies were covered with thick yellow down, and the legs, like the neck, were armoured with bright green scales. The wings were merely short branches of white plumes attached to tiny useless stubs.Okay, now here's a description of the Koroo, another monster bird, from Outlaws of Mars:As he gazed, it emerged upon the bank. A gigantic and hideous bird, fully forty feet in height. Its long lean neck and scrawny body were leathery and bare of feathers. On its huge head was a waving crest of plumes. Itís beak, which was four foot in length and two in width at the base was hooked like that of an eagle. Its short wings were covered with sharp spines in lieu of feathers, and obviously used as offensive weapons rather than for flight. The long scaly legs were adaptable either for wading or swimming, and there were leathery webs between the toes, which were armed with enormous, sickle shaped talons.From Swordsman of Mars, we have the Koree:As the thing rapidly drew closer, he was able to make out a huge head with a hooked beak, a long scrawny neck and a large bird like body supported by two legs each of which was at least fifteen feet in length. The head of the monster, he judged, towered at least thirty feet above the ground. It was... a giant bird with a crest of waving plumes, and a huge curved beak that looked fully capable of cutting a man in two with a single snap. Its long lean neck was bare of feathers and covered with a wrinkled leathery skin. Like the neck, the body was leathery and naked. The wings, which were short and obviously useless for flight, were featherless, but covered with sharp thorny protuberances which made them quite formidible weapons. The long legs were armoured with large rough scales, and the toes were equipped with sickle shaped retractile claws.Compare that with stills from the movie. Not exact by any means, but close enough. It's almost as if Mark Atkins did some homework and borrowed from Kline when he was writing his script.
Almost, but not really. A lot of writers have dueling earthmen and flightless avian steeds in their stories, so the ideas while cool, are not unique to Kline. For instance, Lin Carter, a writer that Atkins is much more likely to have read, had his characters riding Avian steeds in both his "Worlds End" and his "Callisto" series. Most recently, S.M. Stirling had his Martian nomads ride big flightless bird things in his Barsoomiad, Court of the Crimson King. If Atkins has read anything, heís probably read that. The notion of riding giant flightless birds, while not exactly common, shows up often enough in fantasy that its hardly original.
Of course, Asylum's PoM 'thoats' actually were probably originally just software for duckbilled dinosaurs that they modeled some new skin and features on, so they went with what they did not because of Kline but because they could get something cheap and easy. Something pre-existing that they could just play with. I'm just guessing here, but I assume that what happened was that they bought some existing software from some Dino documentary, had it tweaked, and stuck it in.
It's unlikely that it's deliberate. Kline is a much more obscure writer these days than Burroughs. His Martian novels were published in the 1930s as magazine serials. An edited version of them was published in the 1960s as small paperbacks during the Burroughs boom. And they've only recently been republished by Planet Stories. The paperbacks, while not exactly rare, aren't all that easy to find. The magazine serials are only really available to collectors. If you're asking me if Atkins read Kline before he did his script... Not a chance in hell.
Even going by secondary sources, there's not much out there. A few mentions here and there in books of Kline as a rival to Burroughs, fairly vague references to the novels themselves. The most detailed stuff he would have been able to find would be my own Kline essays, and I really donít think that they formed part of his reading or research.
So it's coincidental. But so what? Still, the overtones of Kline are there, by random coincidence, and there's something pleasing about that.
Can We Have Some More, Please?
It's not a perfect movie. There's shots and scenes that just don't work, lines of dialogue that are painful to hear or just don't make any sense. There's points where they needed to get a shot that conveyed a certain kind of information, and instead they just had to take whatever they got. There's a lot of cheese, a lot of flaws.
But then again, this is a $300,000 movie. That's less than the catering budget for Avatar. Factor out the above the line costs -- the stars salaries and stuff, studio overhead, really, we're down to a budget of a hundred thousand or fifty thousand. Considering what they had to work with, what they've accomplished is amazing. Literally, it looks like it would have cost millions. The movie looks better and moves better than productions that cost tens of millions.
I dunno. Y'see, I grew up working at a Drive-In Theatre, my Dad ran it. That was my youth, seeing hundreds of B-movies, and A-movies. I grew up on Harryhausen and Black and White Serials, Carry On movies, and Monster Chiller Horrror Theatre at midnight on Saturdays. My childhood pals were Godzilla and the Ymir, Crash Corrigan. It was Earth versus the Flying Saucers, and the Three Musketeers. I still think that there's a lot of charm to these things.
Nowadays movies are different. Now, it's one blockbuster after another, giant epics with hundred million dollar budgets and hundred million dollar advertising campaigns, that we have to march into one after the other, each one taking up all the space in our heads, and then forgotten as we move on to the next. Each one so big and grand, that everything else suffers by comparison.
But it turns us into snobs. We don't respect B-movies any more, and maybe we should. It shouldn't be hard to make a great movie with a hundred million dollars, and I'm amazed at how often they fail at that. But I think we should be more forgiving and more willing to be entertained at smaller movies made with smaller budgets, where maybe some kind of enthusiasm or creativity or just professionalism makes up for the lack of a mega budget.
If you donít like Princess of Mars, well, youíre entitled not to. I think its quite a good flick, and in another time and place, it would have done well with a theatrical release.
As it is, I find myself hoping that Asylum goes for a sequel. After all, there's a lot of public domain Barsoom stuff. And even beyond that, they could mine Tolstoyís Alita, or Klineís books, or Gustave La Rougeís Prisoner of Mars, or Arnold's Gulliver Jones of Mars. Who knows. If it makes money, they could ride this sucker for a while and still stay well ahead of the lawyers.
I'd love to see Lords and Sabato, Lasky and Atkins back again. After all, as with the book, the movie ends with John Carter waiting to return....
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