By Hank Parmer
It should come as no surprise if I note dragons are hot right now. Okay, when it comes to the fire-breathing variety, except for the White Walkers' new pet they're hot all the time. But you know what I mean. Over the last couple of decades, what with advances in computer-generated effects, on TV and the silver screen these mythical beasts have proliferated like Everglades pythons.
But as today's example illustrates, this has not been an unmixed blessing.
Let's say there's a RenFaire-themed alternate reality in which dragons are real. Not only that, but they're prized for their precious vitriol (though not so much for their withering sarcasm) so the creatures are harvested by intrepid bands of landsmen who roam the wilderness in ironclad tour buses. But wait: Wouldn't this be the ideal setting for a new interpretation of a revered American novel, whose dense symbolist prose has bored generations of high school students out of their skulls?
And what if you could hire a distinguished African-American actor to spout chunks of Captain Ahab's dialog, as well as tap a familiar British thespian -- often cast as a menacing but quirky thug who's prone to episodes of astonishing violence -- to play an abbreviated version of the Pequod
's unflappable second mate, Stubb?
What could possibly go wrong? Well ... everything.
Even though his name appears nowhere in the credits, at first I strongly suspected my favorite punching bag and bête noire
Mark Atkins had a hand in this mess. It certainly has some of the tell-tale signs, beginning with the blatant lie of its poster: There is a dragon, true, but the protagonist never gets within a hundred miles of a shining broadsword, nor is he ever this up close and personal with one of the beasts. As his filmography shows, Atkins has made a career out of crappy films featuring dragons -- Jack the Giant Killer
and P-51 Dragon Fighter
, to name only two -- and with A Princess of Mars
he proved he was ready to apply that reverse Midas touch to classic literature.
And by this point I could well understand why the guy might have ample reason to use a pseudonym. Yet I have a hard time believing he'd content himself with only one credit under his assumed name, or that he could cast the likes of Danny Glover and Vinnie Jones, or that Atkins would have the self-control to refrain from inserting one of his signature "circling P.O.V." shots somewhere in the film. Even though it scarcely bears contemplation, it seems certain now what we have here is something much more dire: an imitator or -- even worse -- an acolyte.
But on to the movie: The fun begins with a flashback to Ahab's difficult adolescent years. Even at this early age, according to the voice over he's a precociously talented hunter. On this fateful day his beloved kid sister tags along while he checks his snares. He's disappointed to find he's only snagged a couple of rabbits. Someday he's sure he'll bag one of those elusive Whooping Hippogriffs.
Sis skips down to a nearby stream with her pail. A vast, dragon-shaped shadow passes over her unnoticed. While she waits for him to join her, Ahab's sister amuses herself by idly tossing pebbles into the babbling brook. She hears something behind her, freezes and slowly looks back over her shoulder.
Ahab hears the girl's terrified shriek; he races down to the stream, only to find a huge white dragon crouched over her bloody corpse. Ahab, mad with rage, yells his defiance and attacks the beast with his knife. He's knocked down into the water, and the dragon belches a jet of fire. Fade-out on a very artistic shot of the abandoned bucket in a sea of slow-motion flames, while first-person narrator "Ishmael" informs us that no one knows why the dragon didn't finish the job on Ahab, who was terribly burned but somehow survived.