Princess of Mars (2009)

John Carter is an elite soldier on a covert mission in Afghanistan, where he gets fatally wounded. On his deathbed, he is recruited for a secret military research program. His body is reconstructed, and he is teleported to the planet Barsoom outside of our galaxy. Upon his arrival, he gets entangled in the war between the races of the Tharks and the Humanoid Martians. Due to his earthly origins, he possesses seemingly superhuman powers, as Barsoom’s gravity is only a fraction of that of the Earth. Together with a band of fellow travelers, he must save Barsoom’s air filter system, that is vital for survival of everyone on the planet, from being destroyed by a villain he knows all too well from Earth.

Princess of Mars was produced by Asylum Entertainment, and is based on the book with the same name, written about 100 years ago. I’ve never read it, but according to the Internet it is considered a classic, and was a source of inspiration for many science-fiction novels and movies that followed afterwards. The movie is also not to be confused with Disney’s John Carter that was released three years later. So as opposed to Asylum’s typical approach, this movie was produced before the Hollywood Blockbuster with a very similar name. People have a tendency to slam Asylum’s movies based on their low budget and copycat plots, but they managed to pull of a few more than decent movie productions among the flood of sub-mediocre material they offered to us. The question is, into which category falls Princess of Mars?

The first thing that works in favor of Princess of Mars is that the bar set by John Carter is fairly low, as Disney’s version was a soulless CGI crapfest. I know, that one was released after Princess of Mars, but I’m trying to stick to the typical Asylum narrative here. Second, I’ve never read the book, so I can’t comment how close the movie adaptation is to the book. It’s also not that relevant, if you want the story to be exactly like the book, I guess you should, uhm, read the book.

The writers had to work around the fact that by now we know for sure that there is no humanoid life on Mars, as opposed to the time when the book was written. They get around this by killing off John Carter, upoloading his brain to a 16 GB USB drive (it’s said like that in the movie), reconstructing his body, and then teleporting him to planet Barsoom codenamed “Mars” by the Military. It’s not clear exactly what he’s supposed to do there, but I appreciate the author’s effort of resolving this dilemma.

John Carter is played by Antonio Sabato Jr., who appears somewhat detached towards his role, or maybe he’s trying to play it supercool. He frequently makes lousy jokes with reference to US culture that the aliens cannot understand. If this is a sign of his patriotic character (and Sabato Jr.’s later support for Donald Trump) or just a way to process his unease in view of an unknown and deadly planet, I cannot say. The other major character in the movie is Dejah Thoris, princess of the empire of Helium, who is played by Traci Lords. While it’s nice to see Traci Lords in a non-adult movie, she approaches her role in a very Steven-Seagalesque way, meaning that she gets through the whole movie with a single facial expression, which can be characterized as half-worried, half-irritated. Still, no complaints on the casting of the main characters, could have been a lot worse.

Apparently the book can be categorized into the genre of sci-fi pulp, and a pulp movie is what we get with a budget that also does justice to the pulp movie genre. There’s plenty of action with shootouts, swordfights and giant insects. Locations are varied, we get to see the desert, a castle, a battle arena and an industrial compound. If you can get your mind into the right spot, it’s all very entertaining. The CGI special effects are extremely cheap, even considering the movie was made in 2009, and they didn’t have a lot of budget. Still, everything blends fairly well together into a nice throwback to 80s post-apocalyptic desert movies and 50s/60s fantasy and sci-fi movies (e.g. Buck Rogers and the Ray Harryhausen movies). One thing that surprised me was that the dialogues were very well written, maybe they were taken straight out of the book, I don’t know. But anything that helps to elevate the quality of an Asylum movie is gladly accepted.

All in all, Princess of Mars is one of Asylum’s better outputs, and can even consider itself to be a decent movie on it’s own. Flaws are abundant, but the story provided by the book is entertaining enough to make it work.

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