‘Someone wiser than me once said “you can tell a lot about a man by what he does”.’
This is billed as ‘photographed, edited, written and directed by Mark Atkins’ – for some reason, Edgar Rice Burroughs isn’t mentioned anywhere in the credits, even though it uses all the character names from his Barsoom books (which are in the works as a bigger-budget film) and is plainly trading on lingering affection for them. It wasn’t until I looked up the publicity that the penny dropped and I twigged this wasn’t a spoiler for John Carter of Mars (due in cinemas 2012 if Roland Emmerich’s disaster doesn’t get us first), but the Asylum’s coattail-riding mockbuster for Avatar: both feature Earthling grunts falling in with aliens on a distant planet, but that’s about it for similarities. It’s possible, whoever controls the ERB rights lobbied to have the name taken off it, but then again if they made a deal they must have known the level of film the Asylum make.
Here, we start in Afghanistan and John Carter (Antonio Sabato Jr) is a special forces grunt who gets killed (sort of) and saved by a process which transports him not to the famous Mars but to the fourth planet in another star system which is sort-of nicknamed Mars-216 by Earth scientists. It turns out that Carter’s archenemy Sarka (Chacko Vadaketh) is also zapped to Barsoom the same way and they pick up their feud later in the film, which means that this crosses the universe just so a Yank and an all-purpose foreigner can sneer at each other. Carter falls in with walrus-tusked asparagus people (Tharks) who have captured Dejah Thoris (Tracey Frickin’ Lords), a humanoid princess, and intend to hand her over to a big boss Thark who’ll kill her. Dejah’s people run the plants which generate oxygen, which means we get a fight scene in the usual borrowed and very Earth-look factory. Carter captures Dejah to save her from slavery, but she is so ungrateful she tosses the contents of her ‘pee cup’ at him through the bars of her rickety cage howdah on top of a CGI beastie.
Stuff happens between huffing and puffing characters, but there’s the usual lack of credible action, watchable effects or decent acting. At 41, Lords is a little too matronly for the Princess Leia slave-girl outfit, and looks sulky throughout—the Asylum seldom bother with star names of any kind, but when they do land them tend to shove them in almost haphazardly. If you had signed Lords for a film, shouldn’t you build a vehicle suitable for her—she’s shown herself a decent enough actress in a range of genres; and if you needed a Burroughsian alien princess, you’d go to a younger hardbody with an exotic look. As with the Asylum’s Sherlock Holmes film, this tries to do bigscale effects scenes without any resources and looks ghastly for it. Random moments seem borrowed from Star Wars, Dune and many other space adventures, but that might be because they all derive from ERB in the first place. Comparing like with like, those cheap, colourful 1970s Amicus Doug McClure Burroughs films with big rubber dinosaurs are much, much more entertaining and at least ran to paperback cover lovelies like Caroline Munro and Dana Gillespie plus proper acting from Peter Cushing. There’s something dispiriting about how ugly these Asylum films look, and how much they waste potentially great material simply by tossing stuff at the screen until it sticks – I get the impression there’s a deal of fannish enthusiasm at work, but I’ve seen better fan films than this.