“It’s their planet… We are the aliens.”
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge and Jason Statham
Ballard (Henstridge), a police officer on Mars, reports to a panel after a mission goes royally tits up. Through a series of nested flashbacks, she explains how a simple pick-up of accused murderer ‘Desolation’ Williams (Cube) from a mining town jail went south as her team – Commander Braddock (Pam Grier), Ballard, Sergeant Jericho Butler (Statham) and a pair of rookies – stumbled into a town full of men and women possessed by, if you will, the ghosts of Mars.
Threatened by the zombie-like possessed and the spirits of long dead Martians which float around and occasionally possess someone else after their host is killed, the cops and their prisoner have no choice but to join forces if they are to escape from the mining town. Obviously, almost everyone dies, and Ballard’s warnings are ignored, leaving the capital of Mars at the mercy of the spirits, because this is a John Carpenter movie, and that’s kind of how he rolls.
What’s wrong with it?
The plot is simplistic, and many filmmakers – including, indeed, John Carpenter – have done more original things with it.
Ice Cube, brought in by the studio to be the big name, is in full-on ‘actually I rap for a living’ acting mode, and Jason Statham had yet to develop his trademark muscular charm (it’s actually quite distracting the way he never punches anyone or loses his shirt during a fight.)
The writing is far from Carpenter’s best. It’s not a stinker of a script, but in part because it lacks any real distinction.
The few non-practical effects – mostly clouds of evil vapour – are kind of shonky.
What’s right with it?
The angry guitar soundtrack (composed by Carpenter) is pretty awesome.
The self-scarring, possessed space crazies are pretty freaky, and in many ways anticipate Firefly‘s Reavers.
The practical effects, including some brutal flying frisbee of death dismemberments, are quite effective.
How bad is it really?
Ghosts of Mars essentially suffers from what I actually hesitate to call the most common flaw in John Carpenter’s film making, which is his refusal to bow to the constraints of budget. It means that sometimes the effects fall a little flat, but you know what, it’s ballsy; I admire that approach, and Ghosts of Mars isn’t all round a bad film. It’s just sort of John Carpenter by numbers – in many ways, Prince of Darkness, in Spaace – and lacks a certain flair. From someone else, it would be a workmanlike effort, but it’s less than one expected from Carpenter.
Of course, in part that could be because it represents the end of a long period of creative burnout that led to a decade-or-so gap between this and Carpenter’s next feature film release.
Best bit (if such there is)?
As the Marzombies break into the precinct, Desolation and the surviving cops fall back in pairs, two shooting while the others reload. It’s a sad indictment of the state of action cinema that this level of strategy is so impressive.
What’s up with…?
- The big dude? Is he the first possessed? Most possessed? An actual Martian?
- Mars’s government? It’s listed in the opening crawl as a ‘matriarchy’, but what does that mean? My guess is that Carpenter just liked the idea of someone refering to the establishment as ‘the Woman’.
Production values – The production is bargain basement, but apart from a few overly ambitious pieces (mostly anything CGI) a textbook example of how to do bargain basement. 8
Dialogue and performances – I’m pretty sure that most of the serious actors on this job are phoning it in, perhaps because Carpenter was fraying. The dialogue is not his best. 11
Plot and execution – It’s a sound basic plot, I just expect something more from Carpenter. Given the nested flashbacks, for at least someone to turn out to have been flat out lying, for starters. 9
Randomness – The film sticks pretty much to its guns. 2
Waste of potential – John Carpenter has produced some of the greatest horror movies of all time on not much more money than this so-so offering. 10