Ghosts of Mars
Screenplay : Larry Sulkis & John Carpenter
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Ice Cube (James "Desolation" Williams), Natasha Henstridge (Melanie Ballard), Jason Statham (Jericho Butler), Clea DuVall (Bashira Kincaid), Pam Grier (Helena), Joanna Cassidy (Whitlock), Richard Cetrone (Big Daddy Mars)
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars starts out as a fairly effective sci-fi horrorshow, then quickly devolves into a mindless action movie that involves a small group of survivors machine-gunning hordes of possessed zombies. Carpenter, who cowrote the screenplay with Larry Sulkis, has an interesting central idea (even if it is lifted in part from Mario Bava's 1965 pulp thriller Planet of the Vampires); but, in the end, he lets it get away from him in a frenzy of bullets and headache-inducing industrial rock music.
The movie takes place in the year 2167. Mars has been colonized by thousands of humans who are within a decade of terraforming the planet so that the atmosphere is completely like Earth's. An interesting twist thrown into the story is that the Martian society has become matriarchal, so that the majority of authority figures are women, rather than men. This includes Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), one of the ranking officers of a squadron from the Mars Police Force that is en route from the planet's main city, Chryse City, to Shining Canyon, a small mining outpost. There they are to pick up James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube), a notorious criminal accused of killing six railway workers and beheading them.
Once at Shining Canyon, the small squadron of police officers (most of whom are rookies) quickly realize that all is not right. They find the prisoners, including Desolation, locked securely in the jail, but no one else seems to be around. They discover beheaded bodies of dozens of local residents hanging upside down at a club, and a little while later the heads are found stuck on poles just outside of town. Then, the remaining 200 residents make their presence known—with demonic eyes, torn-up faces, and grisly body jewelry that consists of pieces of metal jammed through cheeks and noses and ears, they look like a raucous crowd from a Marilyn Manson concert gone complete berserk.
The police officers eventually learn that the residents of Shining Canyon have been possessed by the disembodied residents of Mars, who were unleashed during an archaeological dig. These aliens, who look like red mist when they are not inside a human body, will stop at nothing to stop the colonizing humans from taking over their planet. So, in a sort of reversal of the colonizer/colonized dynamic, they possess the bodies of the human intruders and force them to mutilate themselves and then to kill each other. If one were so inclined, the movie could be read as a rather interesting indictment of the Western colonial mentality, which has been the main cause of problems on Earth—from vast economic disparity to human slavery—for the last 1,000 years.
Yet, Carpenter likely does not want us to read Ghosts of Mars in such a detached, intellectual manner. He seems determined to make this a thought-free action movie, which is exactly what Ghosts of Mars is. If you start thinking about it too much, the whole thing falls apart because it has logic gaps large enough for Jack Burton to drive his semi through them, the least of which is why a society more than 1,000 years advanced beyond today is still using dynamite.
To keep you from thinking, Carpenter pummels you with violence, mayhem, and the never-ceasing electric guitar power chords that he composed himself (the musical brilliance behind the simple, creepy elegance of the Halloween theme is nowhere to be found). He goes out of his way to ensure that we don't care about any characters except for Melanie and Desolation—they are the only ones who have even remotely passable personalities. The other police officers, including Jericho (Jason Statham), who is a leering sexual lecher, and Bashira (Clea DuVall), who has no discernable personality of any kind, are simply fodder for gore. It doesn't really matter if they live or die, which also goes for the hoards of possessed ghouls, who begin to resemble targets in a video game.
Ghosts of Mars is much better in the opening sequences, as the mystery of what happened is slowly unveiled in a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. Sulkis and Carpenter use a fairly complex narrative structure, allowing the story to be told through Melanie as she reports what happened to a fact-finding committee. Taking advantage of the eerie redness of Mars, Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe (who has worked on virtually all of Carpenter's films since 1987's Prince of Darkness) give the movie a dense, barren creepiness, as if the scenes were literally soaked in blood. It is unfortunate, though, that Carpenter couldn't come up with something more inspired for the third act than a lot of random, repetitive machine-gun violence and a nuclear explosion. The rest of the movie was too good to settle for that.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick