Here’s an easy way to set your expectations for Disney’s John Carter -- watch Asylum’s Princess of Mars first. The infamous studio has never shied away from a quick buck, so when Disney moved forward with their John Carter film, Asylum moved forward too, beating Disney to the punch by three years and at an obvious fraction of the cost. While Disney has been derided in the press over how much they spent on John Carter (a lot), nobody has patted Asylum on the back for how much they didn’t spend.
Instead of opening in the past, Princess of Mars opens NOW, in the nowadays times, and John Carter’s a long-range reconnaissance op, just like a video game character. John Carter, through voice-over, even takes the time to let us know his backstory is completely meaningless. “Why am I telling you that?” he asks after explaining who he is. “I don’t know.” Yeah, who cares? Let’s get to Mars!
In Princess of Mars, John Carter is played by Antonio Sabato Jr. who’s about as much of a household name as Taylor Kitsch is. Kitsch approaches John Carter as a haunted war veteran with a glued-on beard who talks like Batman. Sabato takes the approach of a guy from your apartment’s fitness room who maybe just tasted something really sour. You’d be surprised at how much difference this makes in the two John Carters.
The American military transports Sabato to Mars by having his atoms put onto a 16gb memory stick. Only, it’s not really the real Mars, it’s Mars-216 -- a special, different, secret kind of Mars that nobody knows about. This how the movie is able to take place in the modern world when we know there’s no civilizations on Mars; they just come up with a new Mars. Genius. Now, I’m not sure why the movie feels the need to create scientific plausibility by introducing a new Mars when they never explain exactly how you transport someone to another planet via memory stick, or how you even get a person on a 16gb stick anyway, but I appreciate the effort. In John Carter, Mars is Mars, and the mystical amulet that transports Carter to Mars is only more believable than a memory stick because I don’t own a mystical amulet. I own a memory stick, so I know how those work.
Carter meets the Tharks, but instead of giant multi-armed CG warriors, the Tharks are regular-sized dudes in masks from the Lou Gossett Jr. Enemy Mine Bob-and-Weave-Your-Head School of Alien Acting. I know there are people that champion practical effects over CGI in any form, but I’d point them to this movie, and then stare at them and say “really???” over and over until they relented. This Tars Tarkas looks like he’s trying to find an Arby’s close enough to the convention center so he can get back in time for the Babylon 5 outtakes screening.
So, whatever Asylum spent on the Tharks (save that Hobby Lobby receipt, guys), must’ve been spent on a rip-roaring screenplay? Consider this -- in John Carter, Taylor Kitsch doesn’t drink any bodily fluids; in Princess of Mars, Sabato drinks three. “HA! That was our pee bucket!” Tarkas roars with hilarity when Carter takes a big swig of Thark urine. Seems that screenwriters also cost money, so if you have a problem in general with big budget films, you’re going to have to settle for dialogue like, “What’s with you Tharks? Don’t you have reality TV?” and “the job of maintaining the Royal Planetary Pump Station is the most important job on this planet!”
It is an important pump station, by the way. Most of the film centers on Dejah Thoris’s vague task of making sure nobody messes with it, and it also contains the key to getting Carter back to his home. Traci Lords, star of Talk Dirty to Me Part III, has made more watchable films than Lynn Collins, star of X-Men Origins Wolverine, so it would be easy to assume that Asylum has the advantage in this case. Truth is, Lords is capable and willing, but is let down by the fact that even when she’s in scenes with other actors, they react as if she was digitally created and placed into scenes in post-production like some kind of ex-porn Jar Jar Binks. They stare through her, they talk at her, they no-sell the Princess of Mars aspects of Princess of Mars. At least Collins is treated as important.
One of the stranger differences between the two films is in the treatment of Sab Than. In John Carter, he’s portrayed by Dominic West as a ruthless villain who demands Dejah Thoris’s hand in marriage; in Princess, he’s an Afghani mercenary (Chacko Vadaketh) from our time who betrayed Carter, hiding out as Thoris’s servant. Neither villain are particularly interesting, to be honest, and although I’ve tried to be fair to Asylum’s version, at least Sab Than has motivation in the Disney film. In Asylum’s, he gets pissed at Dejah Thoris for not falling madly in love with him and destroys the pump station’s atmosphere generator. Good luck falling in love when you can’t even breathe.
Maybe money can’t buy quality, but lack of money doesn’t either. For all the talk about how big of a financial risk John Carter is, please remember that it only costs you the price of one movie ticket to see it. The issue shouldn’t be whether or not what Disney spent is measured against how personally entertained you are by the film; it should be whether John Carter is worth the money you spent on just your movie ticket. Me? I really enjoyed it. But If you just can’t get over Carter’s mega-budget, Princess of Mars is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Every penny that Asylum spent is on the screen.