You've got to hand it to John Carpenter. The director of such classics as
1978's "Halloween" and 1980's "The Fog," and such recent duds as 1996's
"Escape from L.A." and 1998's "Vampires," has refused to change with the
times. Whereas most movies nowadays strive for at least a speck of
sophistication, Carpenter plays by his own rules, making the films that he
wants to make, how he wants to make them--blood, guts, B-movie storytelling,
and all. His almost stubborn willfulness to avoid reforming to standards is
admirable, and as his last few pictures prove, that is about the only thing
he still has going for him as a veteran filmmaker.
The self-servingly titled "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" is yet another
strand of evidence that Carpenter has lost the obvious talent he once had.
While not quite the fiasco that his last horrific foray, "Vampires," was,
"Ghosts of Mars" is slovenly constructed and reasonably trashy, relying on
flashbacks (and even flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks) so
dogmatically that it quickly becomes ludicrous.
In the year 2176, Mars has been turned into a second home for human beings,
favoring a matriarchal society. When a ghost train hauntingly pulls up to the
Martian Police Station, it holds only one passenger: Lieutenant Ballard
(Natasha Henstridge), handcuffed to a bed post. As Ballard begins relaying
her story to the council, the question of what happened to her and her
partners fall into place.
Assigned to pick up convicted criminal James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube)
at the Shining Canyon mining center, Ballard; her superior, Helena Braddock
(Pam Grier); officer Jericho Butler (Jason Statham); and rookie cops Bashira
Kincaid (Clea DuVall) and Descanso (Liam Waite), find the place oddly silent.
Discovering a room filled with decapitated and mutilated bodies hanging from
the rafters, and only a handful of prisoners still alive, Dr. Whitlock
(Joanna Cassidy) explains to them that the miners of the town have been
possessed by aliens ghosts she accidentally set free. Decked out with
painted, shock-rocker faces, extreme body piercings, and a pension for
self-mutilation, there is seemingly no way to beat them, as the spirits have
the ability to jump from one human host to the next.
Complicatedly structured in a desperate attempt to hide its thin premise and
one-note characters, "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" is an interesting
mess. On the one hand, it is a B-movie through and through, overflowing with
graphic violence, massive bloodshed, and a story that is just plain
ridiculous. Carpenter, however, generates it with his individual brand of
stylishness and energy so that, while the proceedings may not be high art (or
even worth the average moviegoer's while), at least they manage to be
entertaining. In tone, setting, and plotline, the film bears the largest
resemblance to Carpenter's 1982 remake of "The Thing," replacing Antarctica
with Mars, and aliens with ghosts.
The cast is strictly on-hand to deliver intermittent throwaway dialogue
exchanges before getting their heads chopped off and stuck on sticks. Natasha
Henstridge (2000's "Bounce") and Ice Cube (2000's "Next Friday") play heroes
Ballard and Desolation, respectively, a police officer and a criminal who
must team up if they want to survive their hellish ordeal. In one snippet of
truly inane dialogue, Desolation tells Ballard that he's saved her life
twice, only for Ballard's reply to be, mid-kung-fu kick to one of the nasty
zombies, "Keep a tab!"
Pam Grier (2000's "Snow Day"), playing the no-nonsense, lesbian head officer
Helena Braddock, is the veteran cast member, and as such, she not only evokes
the most powerful presence, but also is the first to get chopped up. Rising
stars Clea DuVall (1999's "Girl, Interrupted"), Jason Statham (2000'S
"Snatch"), and Liam Waite (1999's "Simpatico") make up the rest of the
ill-fated team of cops in way over their heads.
With a production design, by William A. Elliott, that is sparse, yet
effective, making due with a relatively limited budget, and a music score, by
Carpenter, that is a mixture of techno and heavy metal, "John Carptenter's
Ghosts of Mars" has the technical aspects of the film down pat. These things
cannot stop the screenplay, credited to Larry Sulkis and Carpenter, from
being a messy hodge-podge of horror conventions that are never scary and
rarely suspenseful. Due to the whole movie being told through flashback, it
takes away all possible surprises of who lives and who dies--a kiss of death
in this particular genre. "Ghosts of Mars" is a step in the right direction
for Carpenter after the hideous "Vampires," but one still has to wonder how
the same genius who arguably began the onslaught of slasher movies with the
brilliant, nerve-tingling "Halloween" could, twenty-three years later, have
become such a hack.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman