Princess of Mars (2009)

Every now and then, we here at MMT like to do something a little more modern, a little more glitzy and shiny than our normal fare of blurry, fuzzy, cruddy public domain b-movies, just to class up the joint a bit so people don't get the idea we're total cheapasses. So let's do a modern retelling of an old pulp adventure. This will be a treat for me as I will admit to having an obsessive fondness for the flapper-era pulp adventure novel, having read countless dime-store books when I was a wee lad (before netflix, gasp). Chief amongst my favorites were the assorted works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of such enduring pulp characters as Tarzan, Doc Savage, and John Carter. While Brendan Fraser ruined Tarzan and George Pal made sure that Doc Savage was dead and buried, fans like myself have always held out hope that one day Hollywood would do proper justice to Burroughs' sprawling, epic, massively-expensive-to-film John Carter series. After decades in development hell, which saw countless sputtering and stalling starts to film this story of a Civil War soldier transported to Mars to fight towering aliens and rescue beautiful princesses, we despaired that it would never happen in our lifetimes. With all those aliens and Martians and amazingly weird battles and such, it would cost a prohibitive zillion bucks to make anything even close to the source material.

But then Avatar crushed the box office and made the 99% CGI movie a viable money-maker and Hollywood suddenly got their act together. The internet bubbled with the news that never-miss Pixar and their cavernously deep pockets were finally giving John Carter a worthy budget and some serious production resources. And I am pleased, John Carter's 2012 release date cannot come soon enough for me.

But until then, let's watch that other ER Burroughs adaptation from a few years back, this one cranked out by The Asylum, legendary producers of shoddy DVD-only exploitation crap. Made on a budget of just $300,000 (probably only half of that actually being spent on the movie, the rest on legal fees and insurance premiums), 2009's Princess of Mars was bum-rushed to video store shelves to capitalize on some John Carter of Mars casting rumors that fizzled out. Shot in just a few weeks and starring some dependable hack b-movie character actors, one scenery-chewing poor man's Lorenzo Lamas, and one former porn star, this movie is exactly as shitty as you would expect. But, still, until 2012, this is actually the best (*shudder*) ER Burroughs film adaptation out there.

The first thing you'll notice is that they "updated" the storyline from post-Civil War 1870s to Afghanistan in the 2000's. While purists will surely hyperventilate and gnash their teeth, they need to remember that period 19th century costumes cost a lot more money than knock-off US Army fatigues and plastic prop M-16s. And The Asylum is all about saving money, scrimping on every possible expense, even if it means tossing the source material out the window of their rented Geo Metro, all to maximize their direct-to-video profits. And it's hard to argue with that business model, it's made The Asylum one of the most profitable (if reviled) movie studios working today (despite crap like this).

Anyway, our movie opens in modern day Afghanistan where we meet our hero, US Army Ranger John Carter. John is played by b-movie stalwart Antonio Sabato Jr., a strapping, beef-eating hunk with perfect teeth and a half-inch of spray-on tan (we've met before). While Sabato's swarthy Mediterranean look isn't exactly what springs to mind when reading Burroughs' descriptions of John Carter, he's certainly buff and bronzed enough to pass for any legendary hero.

And he likes tea.

John is wandering around Afghanistan, shooting at things and lugging around multiple machineguns for no other discernable reason than it's 2009 and that's what manly men did in 2009. There's nothing I hate more than when producers try to piggyback on the war-of-the-month to appear all "socially relevant" (looking at you, Ironman and every episode of NCIS), they almost always just end up insulting anyone who ever served overseas by showing a ubermacho, all-shooting-all-the-time, vastly idealized version of our wars against The Dreaded Islamofascism. But, I suppose, movies about repairing radiators on trucks all day would tank at the box office.

Nice digital matte here, just try to ignore that perfectly straight horizon cut line.

John's contact in a local two-shack village is a slightly oily dude who tells him about a drug deal happening nearby. This is the part of Afghanistan that amazingly looks just like Southern California, populated by local Afghanis who look suspiciously like Mexicans wearing tablecloth keffiyehs. John tries do the Chuck Norris version of the right thing and gets into a wicked firefight with about a dozen bad guys who are all much better armed than he. John ends up three-quarters dead in the dust with multiple bullets in him, though he does manage to give an adolescent boy with an assault rifle a few valuable life lessons in the process.

"Would you like to buy some used stereo equipment?"

Kids shouldn't play with guns.

What do we learn from this 8 minute intro? That John is nice to kids and has an entire backpack devoted to Crest White Strips and hair gel, which is good for him. On the downside, though, we learn that John hates fat chicks and has watched way, way too many Rambo movies. We also have to give a demerit to the Special Operations Command for sending clearly overly-trusting soldiers out on one-man, unsupported long-range recon missions in hostile territory. This isn't WWII, folks, we don't do that anymore, people get sued.

"Can you call my attorney?"

John wakes up in a dark room in what looks like a tanning bed, surrounded by some stern-sounding US military/medical types. To keep from spending money on a "lab set", they just film the actors in close-ups, though in the dim background you can see what looks like the front of a 7-11 store. It seems the US Army has developed a "matter transfer technology" of sorts where every atom of a human being can be decomstrompalized and stored on a 16 gigabyte flash drive and sent off through space to remaguberalize somewhere else. Ok, ok, I know, that's total batshit, but at least they don't dwell on the techobabble for that long.

Hey, it that Walt's dad from Lost?

John's atoms will be sent deep into outer space to "Mars 216", an Earthlike planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. His "original physical body", the one currently full to the brim with 7.62mm Kalashkinov bullets, will remain here on Earth, just his "digital copy" will make the "matter transfer", arriving in an un-riddled state presumably. This is apparently a lot easier than sending a robot probe to Mars 216 and a whole lot easier than using this amazing teleportation technology to zip into and out of Ann Curry's bedroom. As to why they didn't just use "our Mars", that's surely because we know there's no alien civilizations there, but that wasn't known in 1917 when Burroughs wrote the source novel. With little fanfare, John is sent off through a stock footage wormhole. How does that work out for him? I'll let Pam tell you that...

John has seen better days.

Not too, bad, Nate. First off, he's alive, which is incredible considering the unknown technology they used to send him here. Second, as he lies there on the sand, he sees a vision of golden loveliness before him. It does seem, though, that he's jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire, because the golden beauty is accompanied by a masked man whose instant reaction is to draw a sword and threaten to kill poor John, who can't seem to do anything but lie there. However, the beauty stops the masked man, and they depart in a large and very-unaerodynamic-looking airship, leaving our hero still prone.

24k sexy, baby!

John does finally return to full consciousness and finds he's naked in a desert full of steep piles of rocks. He finds something else, too, namely that he can jump a hundred feet into the air. I suppose this means the gravity on the new planet is much less than that on Earth. It must be much less to allow him to jump that high, but when he isn't jumping, he walks perfectly normally. Let's just chalk this up to an unknown phenomenon of this new planet and forge onward.

John is easily adaptable to changes.

Now that's a nice matte. Recognize this famous rocky place? It's where Kirk fought the Gorn.

John takes his newfound ability right in stride and continues to investigate. A crude shelter over four very large eggs supplies a piece of cloth, which solves the nudity problem, but instantly he's faced with a much more serious one: several beings with faces like warthogs show up, spear the eggs, and capture John. The beings walk upright and wear clothes, so they seem to have some level of civilization. Their mounts are cool, dinosaurs with howdahs on their backs in which the riders sit. However, their civilization appears to include the concept of slavery, because they put a collar and chain on John.

The Asylum does know how to make passable digital creature effects, I'll give them that.

The "Martian" masks are made of the cheapest quality bendy rubber, but the knock-off Cossack warrior outfits are nice.

So far it appears that John's change in planet hasn't been for the better. But as dedicated readers of pulp science fiction know, when the hero is abruptly transported to a new world, things generally go badly for him at first, and ending up in chains is a frequent occurrence. Fortunately, heroes of pulp science fiction always have something going for them, which is that they always, always have at least one ability much superior to those of the natives. Maybe he can predict eclipses, maybe he can make gunpowder, maybe he's a master of military tactics, but he's always got something that will get him out of those chains and into the upper class. (Just once I'd like to read a story where the hero is transported to a civilization so much superior to his own that the best he can hope for is to get a job as a janitor, but I guess this wouldn't make for much of a story.)

Or maybe he's just so damn handsome.

Of course you remember how high John can now jump. The warthogs are duly impressed, although John isn't out of his chains just yet. First a giant ant shows up, and once John strangles it with his chain, one of the warthogs is impressed enough to shoot off John's collar and chain. Fortunately the warthog is an amazing shot and does this without so much as scratching John. Or maybe he's not such a great shot, because 10 seconds later the collar and chain are back around John's neck.

Forced-perspective shots like these are meant as a nod to Burroughs' descriptions of these Martians as being 15 feet tall. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn't follow suit.

Who knows what's up with the collar, maybe the metals on this planet have homing properties, but anyway, the warthogs are impressed enough with John's strength and courage to toss him a rifle, with which he helps them fight off a swarm of the giant ants. Many dead ants later, the warthogs take John home, "home" being a sparsely-furnished stone house in the desert.

Perhaps more spiderish than antish?

Earlier we saw one of the warthogs quench John's thirst by squeezing warthog sweat out of a scarf. Now one feeds John by taking a container into another room, making gagging and hacking sounds, and returning the container, now filled with a white goo, to John. John actually eats this, but he does draw the line at the second course, which is supplied by a large grub-like insect spewing out a white liquid. Dessert, a bowlful of squirming worms, is brought in a little later, and this time the warthogs aren't taking "no" for an answer. John is forced to eat one of the worms, and in addition to providing nourishment, it also solves the pesky problem of communication between John and the warthogs. Somehow, and I'm not even going to try to figure out how, the worm enables John to understand the warthog's language and to speak it himself.

That's not how you endear yourself to the indigenous population.

Chief Warthog introduces himself as "Tars Tarkas" and tells John he's earned a position among the warthogs, whose proper name is "Thargs." John seems underwhelmed at this news, but before he can decide what he wants to do, the warthogs are attacked. John's instructed to stay out of it for fear they'll confuse him with the enemy.

The tusks don't seem to have any evolutionary purpose.

We see an airship approaching, and the warthogs attack it with all they've got, which includes machine guns as well as rifles but no large anti-aircraft guns. The airship seems no better equipped, and it's moving very slowly. The warthogs manage to set it on fire, and it's in trouble. John is staring at it pensively, when who should he see but the golden vision he saw when he first arrived? The beauteous princess is played by ex-porn star Traci Lords, and she's not quite as beautiful when seen in clear daylight as she was earlier in the golden haze. Traci Lords was 41 when she made this movie, and although it wouldn't be fair to say she'd let herself go, there's a few too many lines on her face, and her face itself is too hard-looking, to be the girlish heroine Burroughs described. Her body's still in good shape, and her costume, a Princess Leia slave-girl type, displays a good amount of it. However, not as much as the original character's did, because according to Burroughs she wore nothing but jewelry.

Hey, isn't that a digital copy of Jabba's sand-yacht-skiff thing from Return of the Jedi?

Did you really think you could mention the Leia Slave Bikini without me showing it? Really?

But back to the action. John sees the princess, whose name will turn out to be Dejah Thoris, confer with some of her staff, then take off on a sort of flying jet ski. Before her companions can follow her, they're shot by some sort of creature with a hood over his face, and who then disappears. John exerts his superpowers and jumps onto the crippled ship, where he talks to one of the wounded men. The man begs John to take him and his partner away from the ship so the Thargs won't desecrate their bodies, and John obliges by jumping down to the ground with them. The dying man manages to tell some critical information before passing on, and we learn that he and his people run "pumping stations," that Dejah Thoris is the Princess of Helium, and that John must prevent her from marrying somebody whose name I didn't catch, sorry. This seems like a lot to ask of a stranger, but John nobly makes no protest, and after all, it's not as though he's got a lot else to do.

This guy has the best death scene ever, massively overacting like this is his one shot at an Oscar.

Night falls, and John is searching for the princess. He finds her, but she's less than grateful and threatens him with her sword. John explains that he's only trying to help, but in a move Dejah Thoris is likely to misunderstand, he knocks her unconscious (it's to save her from the Thargs who are also looking for her and getting close).

That corded headband thingy looks uncomfortable (and glued on).

Dejah Thoris wakes up in a cage on the back of one of the dinosaur mounts, and sure enough, she's not grateful, even though her makeup's completely unsmeared and her face isn't bruised even a little. John tries to tell her he's still on her side, but she won't listen. Tars Tarkas tells John she'll probably be tortured and killed, so we can understand why she's not in a good mood. However, she has an unexpected ally in Tars Tarkas, who feels she could be used as a bargaining chip in the struggle between Helium and the Thargs. He offers to turn the other way and let John help her escape.

One pissed off princess (nice she has the time to shave her armpits).

Night falls again, camp is made, and John confers with Dejah Thoris, still in her cage but conveniently far from camp with no guards around. She still isn't exactly friendly, but she thaws out enough to explain the source of the fight between Helium and the Thargs. It seems that Helium operates pumping stations which are necessary to maintain the atmosphere of Barsoom. For some reason the Thargs are unwilling to cooperate with Helium, but I don't know why because the disk I got from Netflix is cracked and won't play any further. So I'll turn the review over to Nate, and we'll find out what happens to John and his princess.

Pretty flimsy "cage", you'd think she could chew her way out of that one.

Thanks, Pam, I'll take it from here. So the Thargs are taking John and Dejah back to their capital city far away (unclear as to why, but maybe it's State Fair time?). They have some thrilling adventures along the way, but all we see is an attack by a swarm of badly-rendered CGI mosquitoes, which they have to beat off with gunfire and harsh words. John ends up saving both Tars Tarkas and Dejah during all this, and the Princess noticeably thaws a bit towards him.

The Thargian rifles seem to be kit-bashed from a dime-store microscope and a floor lamp.

The excellent landscape mattes continue.

I've got to give Traci Lords some high-fives here, as she really does a pretty good job with her role. Dejah is one of sci-fi lit's most famous warrior princess and damsels-in-distress, and it's not a character than can be played for laughs or overdone without really missing the point of the character. Lords plays her with just the right amount of grimness and emotion, surprising me greatly (though, to be fair, the only other movie I've seen her in was...well, I'd better not say, the FBI is monitoring me enough already.).

Dejah Thoris demands to be air-brushed on the hood of a 1983 Pontiac Firebird.

In the upcoming 2012 John Carter movie, by the way, Dejah is played by virtual unknown Lynn Collins (and I'm ok with that).

With all the derring-do and swashbuckling and such, Tars Tarkas gains a grudging respect and admiration for both John and, to a much lesser extent, Dejah, though not enough to let them go free. For her part, Dejah also begins to warm up to the Thargs, which is bothersome. Of all the secondary characters in this movie, Tars Tarkas, despite being a warthog, gets the lion's share of the one-line-zingers and plot-moving exposition. He also looks suitably mean and angry most of the time, even if his left tusk tends to wobble a bit when he talks. Of course, Burroughs' modeled these Thargs on the noble savage Native Americans, so I guess you can't be that surprised that they like to scalp foreigners and drink their own sweat.

Tars Tarkas needs a dental PPO.

Once arriving in the city, the Princess is taken away to the King's chambers and things go from bad to worse for John. The King wants to use the Princess for bait and ransom, and when John rather heroically (if half-heartedly) attempts to defend her, he's condemned to death and Dejah's fate is much worse. It seems that the King has a thing for harem girls of Dejah's race (I guess I could call them normal human skinny white girls, but they are really Martians who just happen to look like normal human skinny white girls). Dejah unhappily sees herself in the chained and abused Princess Leia role with the blubberingly fat King and she's even more mad.

They even put her in a bikini that is, if not exactly the same as, at least pretty damn close to Leia's classic metal slave girl two-piece (and yes, I've ref'd that bikini twice in one review, I'm on fire).

The Tharg capital (excellent work, will surely be reused in another Asylum movie, if it hasn't been already...).

The oh-so-cliched arena combat/death gladiator scene is hit and miss. The Masked Man, the Princess' bodyguard from before who was captured in a scene off camera, is brought in to fight John. In the film's Big Reveal, the Masked Man whips off his mask to show that he's the double-crossing weasely Afghani dude from the intro! It seems he was the "first test subject", sent by the US military through the wormhole to this planet some time ago, followed later by John. My first reaction was, "What the hell?!? That is so insultingly stupid." And subsequent reactions are much the same, because it makes absolutely zero sense that the USA would send an enemy combatant on a top secret spy mission to another planet under any conceivable conditions. And it's not like we even care about this guy, he had about 45 seconds of screen time back in the first 8 minutes of the movie and then disappeared for the next hour, we just never got a chance to get to know him, so we really don't care who he was/is.

Hey, is that Lawrence Fishburne?

The (Un)Masked Man, being human like John, can also jump like the Hulk, like John, and escapes the arena with ease. John is chained to a rock, by the way, so he's left to his fate. The next opponent tossed into the ring is none other than the disgraced Tars Tarkas. There's some blabbering, some posturing, some back-stabbing, and in the end, John helps Tars Tarkas kill the King and take over. Yes, this is one of those Old World societies in which whoever kills the king becomes the king. Throughout history, such societies have eventually petered out as old kings start killing anyone who even looks askance at them and prospective kings figure out it's easier just to take some followers off to somewhere else and make a new kingdom. It's just not a sensible business plan for an empire.

The King is fat and bloated and has bad knees, luckily for him he has harem girls to massage his joints.

John really, really wants to cut someone.

John leaves with Tars Tarkas' blessing, riding a flying surfboard thingie that looks like it was made of varnished plywood and garden hose sprinkler heads. He's headed for the "air pumping station" where he believes the (Un)Masked Man is heading to cause trouble. Meanwhile, a Thargian woman named Sola has freed Dejah from the harem room, and she also heads for the pumping station (on her own, sans John). Sola, Tars Tarkas' on-again-off-again love interest, gets a lot of critically plot-relevant time in the book, but here is just a barely-noticed background character (I guess you have to cut somewhere to make it come in under 90 minutes).

Hahahaha, seriously?

So our big climax takes place on Mars' main atmosphere/air generation station, which looks more like a water treatment facility in Long Beach than any example of "alien technological wonder". Now, your first instinct is to say, "Hey, they just ripped off Total Recall!", but the truth is that all this stuff about an ancient air pumping station that keeps Mars' air fresh is taken directly from Burroughs' source novel. In a lot of ways Burroughs was ahead of his time, fusing sci-fi elements with traditional sword-and-sandal fantasy (most of his stuff, including this source novel, is public domain and well worth the read).

From any angle, that just looks human.

The (Un)Masked Man is already here, as is Dejah. He's gone off the deep end (for some unexplained reason) and is threatening to blow up the plant and kill off the entire living population of the planet unless Dejah promises to love him and have his babies. Ah, clever how they have the headcloth-wearing Arab guy threatening to blow shit up, eh? When Dejah refuses, he blows it up anyway, which seems to remove his bargaining chip (stupid terrorists...). All over Mars, people clutch their throats and thrash around on the ground as the life-giving air is sucked away. John better hurry up, they only have 20 minutes to live!

And she was saving herself for Mister Right.

Wait, isn't that Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs?

The long-awaited final fight between the (Un)Masked Man and John arrives as both men draw swords and face off. Neither actor is very good (at all) at the swordplay stuff, and they don't use stunt men it seems, so you get a very stilted fight where they both seem more concerned about not violating their insurance policy riders than anything else. John wins, of course, because good always triumphs over evil in the movies (well, except for Rosemary's Baby).

"Remember, dude, do not hit me in the face. I have an audition tomorrow."

And to close it out we have a heart-pounding world-in-the-balance race against time to get the back-up air pumps turned on and save the planet. John and Dejah find the alternate generator and they crank it up and they can now relax and share meaningful glances and blushing eye-bats.

Uh, hello, you won, you can smile now.

As he holds Dejah, John begins to fuzz out, slipping back through the wormhole to Earth again (why?). He's less-than-pleased that the US Army brought him back to earth, presumably because they realized they forgot to warn him that they already sent a murderous Islamic terrorist through the wormhole and he might want to be on guard for that (woops, our bad!). The stinger is a very depressed looking John back in Afghanistan and back out wandering around the scrubby desert shooting at random Arabic things. While his physical body is on Earth, his heart and his soul will always be on distant Mars-216 with the lovely Dejah and her bountiful bosoms. Kinda sad for him, really, not a very uplifting ending (kudos to The Asylum for that).

"And I never got to have sex with an alien princess, Captain Kirk would be so disappointed..."

So, in conclusion, this made me want to go back and read some old pulp adventure novels again (for real), try and recapture some of that childhood thrill of brave men doing dangerous deeds to save beautiful girls from horrible monsters. A word of warning to the producers of the upcoming John Carter movie...don't fuck this up for me.


The End.

Written in September 2011 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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