John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars

| September 1, 2001

Strong plot, well-rounded characters, and quality special effects don’t stand a ghost of a chance of appearing in John Carpenter’s latest clunker.
Believe it or not, I can think of at least two people who walked out of John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars with smiles on their faces–Brian de Palma and Courtney Love. Why, you might ask? Simple, really. With the release of Carpenter’s latest film, de Palma’s horrendous Mission to Mars gets bumped up a spot and now is merely the second-worst movie ever made about the red planet. Love had the great good fortune of injuring her ankle a few days before shooting began and “losing” her role to Natasha Henstridge.
Yes, Ghosts of Mars is that bad.
The year is…aw, who cares? The time is irrelevant. We’re on Mars, which is a matriarchal society. Why is Mars a matriarchal society? So that the mullet-headed teens will more readily accept Pam Grier (in a blatant “take the money and run” cameo) and Natasha Henstridge as the senior police officers in the film, one assumes. Having the gender dynamic turned on its head was an utterly wasted wellspring of ideas and plot development. Grier et al are sent out to a mining camp to pick up John “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) and escort him back to Chryse, the nearest city. Williams, a known criminal, has been accused of murdering a slew of miners.
When the police officers reach the camp, they find it full of corpses. What’s more, Williams is locked in his cell, so it’s pretty obvious that he had nothing to do with the massacre. Apparently, miners uncovered a vault full of Martian spirits. The spirits possessed the miners, compelling them to engage in extreme acts of body-mod and slaughter the “invaders”–their non-possessed brethren. They’re relatively easy to kill, but since the spirits hop from their newly-dead hosts to living bodies, there’s not much point in thinning their ranks.
The cops, Williams, and the other random survivors band together to try and get back to the train which will speed them home to Chryse. Just one problem: the zombie-Martians have weapons and a leader who looks like what would happen if you shuffled He-Man’s and Marilyn Manson’s genes together. They’ve all fashioned swords, spears, and killer-Frisbees out of mining equipment (I know, I know–just stay with me on this, folks) and they’re all crack-shots.
Well, the good guys finally escape from the mining camp, minus a few poor schmucks who lost their heads to the Frisbees. That’s when Henstridge gets the idea to go back to the camp and try to destroy the Martian spirits by purposely detonating the local nuclear power plant. That’s right–after all that effort and bloodshed to fight their way from the safety of the buildings to the safety of the train, they all want to go back and do it two more times! The idiots!
Not only did Carpenter see fit to direct and co-author this abomination, he also decided to tackle the musical duties as well. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he did this in order to ensure that as few people’s careers had to be ruined by virtue of having worked on Ghosts of Mars. Whatever his reasoning may have been, the result is a garage-metal cacophony not unlike what you’d expect from over-amped 13-year-olds with mullets and premature nerve deafness. Then again, as they were probably this movie’s target audience, I suppose the similarity isn’t much of a surprise.
There are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. Carpenter over-explains what’s going on–not only patronizing, but utterly unnecessary. The dialogue stinks. The special effects are cheap. The acting’s nothing to write home about, either. Natasha Henstridge, nada. Jason Statham, nada. Clea Duvall could have phoned in her lines, if only Carpenter had seen fit to give her any. Ice Cube mistakes scowling for acting. And speaking of Ice Cube, why on earth couldn’t somebody have given his character a better nickname? “Desolation”? Save it for a criminal mastermind with an effete English accent. Ice Cube does deserve credit for what few laughs the movie provides–all elicited by his running commentary on the other survivors’ inane actions.
From the opening voiceover to the groanworthy ending, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars serves as an example of why directors should refrain from tacking their names onto the titles of their films. Discretion is the better part of valor. In the Mouth of Madness was a creepy film, and Vampires wasn’t all that bad, but Carpenter’s making a mistake if he thinks that past successes and semi-successes can insulate his reputation from fallout from clunkers like this one.

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