Can’t wait for Princess of Mars, the upcoming live action Disney / Pixar movie based on the iconic Edgar Rice Burroughs novels? How about checking out this made-for-DVD title in the meantime? Or rather don’t . . .

Sometimes not even lawyers can save you. Ask Wesley Snipes. Ask Edgar Rice Burroughs who is no doubt spinning in his grave right now . . .

Back in 1912 Burroughs published a science fiction story about a heroic ex-Confederate soldier named John Carter who, trapped by marauding Indians (back then they weren’t “Native Americans” yet) in a cave, is overcome by noxious fumes. Somehow his soul is transported to the distant planet of Mars where he becomes involved in all kinds of adventures involving a war between rival alien races and of course a sexy princess.

The Barsoom series of books as they were called were pretty popular, but Burroughs didn’t hit the proverbial jackpot until he invented a character named Tarzan (you might have heard of him).

John Carter may not be as well known as a certain Lord Greystoke, but the Barsoom novels – pulpy as they were – went on inspire the likes of Ray Bradbury, John Norman and Arthur C. Clarke. (Scientist Carl Sagan also accredited the novel for having sparked his life-long fascination with space exploration after having read it as a child.)

But that was almost a century ago. Since then the novel has lapsed into the public domain, which means that the copyright has expired and basically anyone can publish the novel or make a movie or TV show out of it. Sneaky lawyers however found a loophole: they trade-marked the characters from the novels.

So, sure, you can go right ahead and publish Princess of Mars on the Internet in PDF file; you can make a movie titled Princess of Mars and feature the same series of events as in the novel - but you can’t use any of the character names! (The same legal process is used to keep age-old characters such as Superman and Batman out of the public domain. The same trick was also recently used to keep the rights of the Peter Pan character under the control of the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the institution for which author J.M. Barrie left the copyright.)

This however still didn’t stop movie production outfit The Asylum from making the very first movie version of the Barsoom novels, namely this 2009 made-for-DVD effort. The Asylum specializes in so-called “mockbusters” – incredibly cheap movies intended to rip off current Hollywood blockbusters. If you bring out a Transformers movie then they will bring out Transmorphers. If you have a movie called The Day the Earth Stood Still, they will bring out a movie titled The Day the Earth Stopped. All of the movies are crap and The Asylum has cottoned onto the fact and now their current slew of giant fish stories (Mega-Piranha, Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus, etc.) are being marketed as being “so bad, they’re actually good.”

"At 42 Lords is way past her sell-by date as a believable Martian princess . . ."

So who did The Asylum rip off with Princess of Mars?

As you probably know, Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) is currently working a big budget movie version of Princess of Mars titled John Carter of Mars for Disney / Pixar. (Hollywood has toyed with a proper John Carter movie for ages previously. At one point Robert Rodriguez was supposed to have directed it.) But The Asylum seemed to have jumped the gun on this one: Stanton’s movie isn’t due until 2012, by which time their movie would have gathered loads of dust on the video shelves. (If we even have video shops left by then!)

The DVD cover of Princess of Mars supplies a clue: it is apparently the “classic story that inspired James Cameron’s Avatar.” A bit of a stretch really, so expect this title to pull its own Cameron in two years’ time and gets re-released as “special edition” with some extra footage to cash in on the Disney / Pixar flick.

Anyway, as we said, sometimes not even clever lawyers can save you. They certainly couldn’t prevent Princess of Mars from being made into a shitty movie by The Asylum.

Despite updating the material (the hero is now a Special Ops dude fighting in Afghanistan instead of an ex-Confederate soldier prospecting for gold in Arizona) the movie remarkably goes to the trouble of actually keeping some plot elements from Burroughs’ source novel such as the fight for the oxygen factory and Carter being able to leap effortlessly through the air because of the lower gravity on Mars.

The Asylum not only kept some of the novel’s plot elements, but even kept the name “John Carter” despite it being trademarked, figuring that it is probably such a common name that they will get away with it. (The Asylum are a fearless bunch. 20th Century Fox threatened them with legal action if they released The Day the Earth Stopped. They ignored it and still went ahead. Fox never followed up with their threats.)

It is kind of sad though that the first movie version of such a beloved novel such as Burroughs’ got such shoddy treatment. (But then again the Tarzan character has been the subject of so many crappy cartoons and TV shows throughout the years that one wonders whether public domain status is really the death knell for quality control when it comes to certain intellectual properties.)

Filmed over 12 days (!) the movie stars ex-porn star Traci Lords as the titular princess of Mars and Antonio Sabato, Jr. as John Carter. The acting is rotten and at 42 Lords is way past her sell-by date as a believable Martian princess in need of rescue. (She instead reminds one of an embarrassing aunt who still wears the same trashy outfits she did as a teen.) The special effects and makeup are rubbish (no-one even bothered hiding the fact that the actors are wearing cheap rubber masks) and the film’s designs are cribbed from Return of the Jedi (which, to be fair, probably stole from Burroughs / Frank Frazetta imagery in the first place).

Better to save your money and wait for the 2012 movie. Or read the book. After all, you can download it here for free – and it’s all legal too.



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