Saturday, March 27, 2010

Princess of Mars: Traci Lords is Baaaaack!!!!!

I finally broke down and dropped my five bucks to rent Princess of Mars, written and directed by Mark Atkins. The direct to video 2009 release stars Antonio Sabato, Jr. as John Carter and Traci Lords as Deja Thoris. This film is based on the series of adventures penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame. The stories were "planetary romances", what has become known as Sword & Planet. There were roughly a dozen or so of these stories, usually serialized in various pulp magazines, the majority surrounding John Carter as the main character.

John Carter was a Virginian who had served during the Civil War as an officer. He was adept at shooting, riding, and he was deadly with a sword in his hand. All prerequisites for what was to come. Through a process which could only be related to astral projection, but with physical form, John Carter finds himself on the red planet that the natives call Barsoom and we know as Mars. He finds with the lighter gravity of Mars he is stronger, faster, and able to make tremendous leaps. He befriends, a four armed tusked warrior named Tars Tarkas, of a race called Tharks. He rescues Princess Deja Thoris from the Tharks; he goes on to embroiled in the events and politics of Barsoom. He saves the planet from suffocation by revitalizing/turning on the air pumping station that maintains the thin atmosphere. The first story ends with John Carter declared War-Lord. All the John Carter tales are related in the first person as Carter returns to Earth periodically having learned to secret to willfully travel between worlds, so the tales are as he related them to one of his descendants. (Burroughs)

The Mars of Burroughs imagining is a post-apocalyptic desert planet, inhabited by humans, myriad multi-limbed beasties, an assortment of weird races, and mad scientists for Carter to pit himself against. The world is drying up, becoming arid and inhospitable. Ancient technology manifests itself in things like air ships, flying sleds, radium guns, and afore mentioned pumping station. There are other super-science plot devices such as brain transplants from living bodies to synthetic ones and between species. The cultures are all honor bound warrior based societies with an emphasis on personal combat and reputation. With the technology becoming rare as it breaks down with little knowledge to replicate or repair, the societies have fallen back on swordsmanship and hand to hand combat as a means to wage war.

The Burroughs' books are great fantasy and an exemplarily example of pulp fiction that would go on to influence generations of writers, including Robert E. Howard and later day literary heroes like R.A. Salvatore.

Now the movie: not bad. Not good, but not bad. The movie actually does a fine job of adapting The Princess of Mars. But like so many Sci Fi Channel productions it suffers from a very low budget. But unlike the upcoming Conan film, the one of ARNOLD fame and even the new Solomon Kane film that will be released on DVD here in the States, this film actually follows Burroughs' story closely.

The film Princess of Mars has modernized John Carter, (Sabato) in that he is a Captain in the Marines rather than a Confederate officer, in the Middle East rather than in the Old West prospecting gold. The Mars of this new rendering is a planet in the Alpha Centauri region called Mars 4. John Carter agrees to be part of a teleportation experiment to this remote and theoretically inhabitable world. This gets around the fact that hard science has ruined the planetary romance and the turn of the century speculation about the Mars of our solar system.

When he arrives, as in the novel, he encounters the Tharks who are amazed and entertained by his prodigious leaping ability and strength. The rest of the film follows the original Burroughs' plot loosely, replacing the enemy city-state of the novel with the machinations of another Earth man that had also agreed to the experiment.

The nit and the picky: the production value is stupendously low. In the Burroughs tale the Tharks are ten foot four armed green giants. In the film they are men in rubber masks, but at least they kept their tusks. The make up is not bad, and at least they try to keep some semblance of the original envisioning, but like the thoats (6 limbed beasts) that are reduced to bipedal raptor-like creatures, the extra limbs are lost to save CGI money. The green screen shots are painfully obvious as such, and the swords, which were such an integral part of the society, are really cheap wall hanging pieces and have no uniformity of style: Roman gladius, sabers, and psudo-celtic broad swords. Of course there is Traci Lords, her acting was stilted, her facial expressions minimal, I half suspect from Botox to fill in the lines of a hard lived life. I envisioned a younger, fresher faced Deja Thoris, but admittedly, at 42 she still looks great in a leather bikini. The editing between scenes and cut scenes are rough and sometimes jarring. The film lacks the epic swashbuckling scale that the novels possessed.

The cool and geeky: This is John Carter of Mars as a live action film! There is a bigger production slated for 2012, but this came first. It stayed close to the source material as I said to hear the name Deja Thoris or Barsoom spoken aloud; to enjoy a version of Tars Tarkas befriend John Carter is geeky coolness. Despite the lack of a budget I think those that worked on this film wanted to make a good John Carter of Mars movie, but it is hard to realize that sweeping vision on a stipend. Sabato looks like John Carter, tall and muscular, dark haired, with honorable sensibilities. He might not have been the southern gentleman of Burroughs' stories but he is the man he could be in this modern, ambiguous era. And the former Calvin Klein model is not half-bad as an actor.

I caution that this film is really for die hard geeks like me. I will say at least they tried, and I don’t think they did a bad job considering what they had to work with. I would also point to this movie and say to those making the new Conan and the 2012 John Carter of Mars, a good story can be adapted faithfully. I would also caution them that all the special effects in the world do not make a bad story any better.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting your review. I will look for this the next time i'm in my local video store.