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Insomniac Movie Theater: Princess of Mars

by Trevan McGee on June 17, 2010

in Columns,Insomniac Movie Theater

64 million people a year suffer from insomnia and every so often I am one of them. But rather than use the extra time I’ve been given during a given insomniac episode to be productive, balance my checkbook, study for the LSAT or exercise, I instead fool myself into thinking the time isn’t my own and can therefore guiltlessly waste it.

Netflix instant queue is the perfect response to this mentality as it gives me access to countless B and C movies all of which I willingly watch while everyone else is fast asleep. Enter Insomniac Movie Theater, where I subject myself to some of the worst, campiest and outright terrible movies the world has to offer … and the occasional cult classic.

This week’s entry is another botched Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation and a failure so complete, I feel guilty just for writing about it. It’s the latest offering from the direct-to-DVD studio The Asylum, which specializes in releasing movies designed to capitalize on the success of its Hollywood big brother. Without further ado, its “Princess of Mars.”

“Princess of Mars” has all of the telltale signs of a direct-to-DVD release. The dubious critical praise on the cover, the cast of C actors, the script that calls for visual effects way out of the budget, and the recycled locations all serve as reminders that this movie was engineered for the sole purpose of filling a two-hour programming block on SyFy and occupying my NetFlix queue at 4 a.m.

Antonio Sabato, Jr. plays John Carter, a US Army Sniper in Afghanistan who is mortally wounded during a standoff with some insurgents. From a triage tent he is used in a teleportation experiment designed to heal his wounds and is inadvertently sent to Mars using a visual effect on par with an episode of “Sliders.”

Once on Mars, he discovers that he can leap great distances and possesses super strength. He also meets Dejah Thoris, the titular princess, played by an ungracefully aging Traci Lords. In this clip, Sabato, Jr. wakes up on Mars, which suspiciously looks like the Vasquez Rocks of Northern Los Angeles and demonstrates the movie’s atrocious special effects. If Sabato Jr.’s tattoos are real, then homeboy got himself the guy equivalent of a tramp stamp. Check it out for yourself at :22.

It’s not entirely accurate to call “Princess of Mars” an adaptation. Yes, the general details remain mostly intact and the names are correct, but past that is a movie that either can’t (because of budget restrictions) or won’t (because of an unimaginative director) indulge in the errant fantasy that made Burroughs’ work so affecting. Nothing in the movie is ornate or detailed, resulting in a complete lack of visual identity.

The original story benefited greatly from its fantastical imagery and Burroughs’ knack for writing poetic detail. Like this description of princess Dejah Thoris:

“And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life …. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.”

This is how the same passage would read once ran through the “Princess of Mars” Paraphrase Machine:

“I saw this smokin’ hot, naked brunette wearing a bunch of jewelry. I think she was Indian.”

Is it fair to criticize a direct-to-DVD movie for lacking the necessary visual effects and care required to adapt such a daunting story? Probably not. Especially considering major studios have just recently achieved the technology necessary to fully realize Burroughs’ work. But considering most of the issues with “Princess of Mars” extend beyond bad CG or poor green screen compositing, it’s not entirely unfounded.

For one, Antonio Sabato, Jr. is a horrible actor. One scene in particular, which involves his character refusing to eat what the Tharks call food is especially cringe-inducing. Another scene that finds Lords being held down by blind concubines is also horrible.

Past the performances, the plot makes zero sense, especially when Carter’s nemesis from Earth somehow shows up on Mars, intent on destroying the atmosphere for no reason at all. And the final action scene takes place on what is clearly a repainted abandoned oil refinery. How futuristic.

There really is no excuse for “Princess of Mars,” not even by 4 a.m. NetFlix standards. And while low-budget cash grabs like this have existed and will exist within the industry forever, the decision to make this movie, which is currently being developed by Disney and Andrew Stanton for a 2012 release, is especially insulting. But what else can you expect from the same production company that brought us “Titanic 2” and “Snakes on a Train.”

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