Well it finally showed up. So how is the first film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' science fiction classic? Is it the total disaster that some has written it off as or actually a decent film? Actually somewhere in between. (And a quick spoiler warning-some plot details will be discussed.)
John Carter (Antonio Sabato Jr) is a US soldier attempting to infiltrate a terrorist cell in Afghanistan when things go awry. Mortally wounded he is given only one choice-be used as a guinea pig for a scientific experiment where he will be sent to the planet of Mars. Once there he is uninjured and discovers he has gained super human powers. Those come in handy when he is captured by an indigenous race of creatures known as the Tharks. His abilities though earn him the respect of one Thark-Tars Tarkas (Matt Lasky) . Their trust is tested when the Tharks capture the Princess of Helium Dejah Thoris (Traci Lords) who is on a mission that could change the course of the planet. With the Tharks and their leader Tal Hajus on one side and a deadly assassin on the other John must navigate through these savage lands, rescue the princess and the planet itself.
When I first sat down to watch this I admit I was skeptical. The Asylum's reputation, the casting and the early word on the film from some who have seen it seemed to peg it as the lost cause some predicted. Yet some also admitted that while it had flaws it also worked as a good little "B" sci-fi film and despite some claims was not the worst adaptation of an ERB novel (that honor probably still goes to the Bo Derek Tarzan The Ape Man). And in many ways both are right. First the weak points-some of the characters are short changed. Even though both Sola and Kantos Kan are in the film they are relegated to the sidelines and given little to do. The film also removes Sola's story which to me was one of the most moving parts of Burroughs' novel. The film's effects are also uneven-the princess' air ship looks really good but the Thoats (here two legged almost bird like creatures) are pretty rubbery (though no worse than most SyFy flicks). And yes the two-arm Tharks are disappointing (even though the masks and makeup on them are quite good.) The film also reworks the finale probably due to budget constraints. I guess the most debatable element I've seen is Traci Lords' performance. I don't think she's necessarily a bad actress but she is definitely all over the place here.
So what does work? Well quite a bit actually. The best part in fact is Sabato. While I had my doubts he actually does a pretty good job as John Carter, bringing a sense of humor to the part while taking the dramatic parts at least as seriously as someone can in this type of film. Also good is Matt Lasky as Tars Tarkas, who follows Sabato's lead and brings humor and some seriousness to the proceedings. The story while it removes much and updates it actually maintains the main thrust of Burroughs' novel (even though the opening experiment part reminds me most of Avatar). Some of the action scenes are well done also-the attack on the flier in fact is lifted whole from the novel. I also liked the fact that the Tharks do speak an alien tongue for the first little bit, setting up the world they inhabit. And while it is overused the location shooting in Vasquez Rocks (which will be familiar to Star Trek fans) adds some alien luster.
In the end Princess of Mars is what it is-a low budget film made quickly. It might not be the John Carter film many wanted (and for those people my advice is skip it and just wait and pray Andrew Stanton's version actually delivers). But for those with an open mind and a fondness for B films it isn't too bad. Hell it was better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which have no excuse for their awfulness. My rating (in this case on a B movie scale) ** 1/2 out of four. (The DVD extras do include two notable bonuses-a brief making of that shows that director Mark Atkins at least takes his work seriously and does show some tests for 4-armed Tharks that were eliminated because of budget and about 10 minutes of deleted scenes.)