Science fiction and fantasy fans have been waiting decades to see Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp hero John Carter of Mars immortalized in a thrilling film adventure. Unfortunately, nearly a century after Carter’s first story appeared in 1912, The Asylum slopped together 2009's PRINCESS OF MARS, a lumbering and poorly cast picture starring 41-year-old porn star Traci Lords as the titular princess, Dejah Thoris—hardly the “chiseled and exquisite” beauty described by Burroughs.
The dumbest thing writer/editor/cinematographer/director Mark Atkins did was provide a cockamamie scientific explanation for John Carter’s disappearance from Earth. Burroughs decided, probably wisely, to leave it to the readers’ imagination. Was Carter teleported to Mars, or did he just dream his adventures? Writer/editor Marv Wolfman stayed faithful to the original vision in the Marvel Comics series JOHN CARTER, WARLORD OF MARS during the 1970s.
However, Atkins decided it would be cooler, I guess, to make Carter (Antonio Sabato Jr.), not a Confederate soldier, but an American Special Forces sniper operating in Afghanistan who is mortally wounded. Since all the data needed to reconstruct Carter’s body (and soul?) rests on a 16GB memory stick (!), the Army zaps a perfectly healthy Carter to Mars. Not our Mars, though, but a Mars in the Alpha Centauri system, which the government thinks may be inhabitable. All this exposition happens in a couple of minutes, and Carter seems not the least bit confused, frightened, or overwhelmed to suddenly be on a desert planet surrounded by aliens.
On the planet its natives call Barsoom, Carter earns the respect of reptilian Thark warrior Tars Tarkus (Mark Lasky) by strangling a giant spider. After initially capturing Dejah Thoris and handing her over to the Tharks, Carter encounters a thoroughly idiotic plot twist that leads to him battling to protect the pumping station that provides breathable air for everyone on Barsoom. Why Atkins decided to create this preposterous villain in the final third is beyond me. It makes zero sense logically or dramatically.
Perhaps Atkins was unaware that Southern California’s Vazquez Rocks is among the most photographed movie locations ever, because he shoots half the movie there. No matter how far Carter and his party travel through the desert, they always end up in front of that same notable pointed rock formation (later scenes take place in the equally familiar Bronson Canyon). Unlike many movies from The Asylum, I think an actual effort was made to produce a good movie, but deficiencies in budget, casting, and scripting make that difficult.
PRINCESS OF MARS is not a complete disaster, and is in fact one of the better Asylum pictures I’ve seen. It’s boring and woodenly acted, but some of the visual effects are striking for the money, and occasional scenes elicit a sense of awe that the film, in general, lacks. The Asylum also adapted Burroughs’ THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT the same year.