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Ghosts of Mars

movie review out of 4

*Also starring: Jason Statham, Clea Duvall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Richard Cetrone, Duane Davis, Lobo Sebastian, Liam Waite

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

JOHN CARPTENTER'S GHOSTS OF MARS is the full title of this movie. Including his name is the strategy the director has chosen to make his work into a sort of franchise, a recognizable player in a field cluttered with folk who want to make horror flicks.

Not that the guy's a sellout – Carpenter always paints with bold strokes, displaying sides charged with creativity, originality and technical risk-taking. But this director is also not afraid to recycle every cliché you can name from the genres of Western, martial arts, and sci-fi films.

A favorite idea of Carpenter's is possession. In THE THING a creature from outer space, defrosted from its prison in the Antarctic ice, infects the scientists at a remote station. His recent VAMPIRES deals with vampirism as infection – one of the main characters slowly taken over by the force of the title. The ghosts on the Red Planet appear as a storm of red dust, released unwittingly by a team of miners and their doctor. Ruthlessly these ancient spirits seize hosts; the possessed mutilate themselves horribly, regard their human bodies with insane bemusement, even move strangely. Their purpose: to wipe out any foreign invader of Mars, even eons after their own deaths. It's hard to think of a theme more terrifying than being taken over against your will. It's the reason the Borg are such good villains in the Star Trek series.

Carpenter's storytelling marks him as a risk-taker. Using multiple flashbacks, some very short and others lengthy, he shows us what happened to the mining outpost in Shining Valley. The opening of this frame tale shows a tribunal gathering to hear the report of Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge). We watch as her tale unfolds: a trip with her fellow police officers to bring back the dangerous felon `Desolation' Williams (Ice Cube). Their commander is Helena (Pam Grier) a hard-nosed veteran who is saddled with one of the worst lines of dialogue: `You think you're all a bunch of tough hombres,' she utters to her squad as they prepare to disembark from the train and step into the apparently deserted mining town. Jason Statham plays Jericho, the lecher with a British accent, but a good cop. The rookie Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall) accompanies them, along with a few other officers. Of course much is implied at the beginning, when Ballard tells about returning alone, handcuffed to the train, which arrives via automatic pilot. Has every single one of her entourage perished? Is Williams dead? Instead of a spoiler, this detail turns into a tantalizing lure. Carpenter handles well the implications of exploring a story told by a flawed character.

Although the film takes a few minutes to get rolling, we are soon interested in the premise. Jericho discovers the gorge in which the possessed miners rant. We see tidbits of the ancient Martian culture – talismans made of wire, nails, scissors and other weapon-like materials, bundles of teeth and tissue oddly reminiscent of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. The creatures are now zombie-like, having displaced the personalities of the humans. Whenever one of the hosts dies, by the way, we see the world in a distorted frenzy, the floating Martian-eye view of the hated humans, as the spirit seeks a new body to occupy. The police come across several of these tortured souls in the concrete structures that make up the ghost town.

But the action really starts when the main body of vengeful Martians discovers the team. By now a subplot has shown us the conflict with Williams – part of which is a contingent bent on springing him from jail. Of course Ballard and her officers are consumed with following their orders to return with Williams so that he might stand trial. How the cops deal with crooks and ghosts takes up the remainder of the story.

The action scenes are very bloody and mostly well-choreographed. One sequence goes over the top when the black-clad, ghost-addled bodies keep charging down the corridors, dropping as fast as the black-clad good guys can blow them away. Hand-to-hand skirmishes are punctuated by neat series of kicks and other combinations. Perhaps there is one beheading too many, though, particularly when you can tell the victim is a dummy.

A technique that Carpenter uses sparingly cuts from the actors and springs a couple of seconds forward, so we spot them a few steps ahead; these shots are pure stylistic try-outs, it seems, interesting visually but without merit in furthering the story.

The acting is solid enough for the vehicle. Henstridge is faced with other actresses who have played strong, silent heroes in modern movies, but she does come off well. Her character falls just short of doing everything by the book. Scenes of her hallucinating during drug use let us glimpse her real self, as well as provide important foreshadowing.

Statham's character, Jericho Butler, becomes likable only after we see he is loyal and competent. This strong actor gives a visceral boost to the tale. The rest of the cast support the story well, particularly the stunt man-turned-actor Richard Cetrone, who plays the leader of the zombie miners, dubbed `Big Daddy Mars.' It's essentially a non-speaking role, though Cetrone frequently howls and chants, whipping up his frantic followers. I've read a few comments about Cetrone's make up: I was reminded of an enraged member of the rock group KISS, his chest pierced heavily and his mouth drooling blood. And I wanted to ask, `If these human bodies have been so beaten, (self) mutilated and otherwise drained of blood and energy, how can they still attack so savagely? But that's one disbelief I must suspend.

In one over-the-top scene I had to laugh at Big Daddy's persistence, in the same way that I tend to laugh when I'm getting thrown around by a roller coaster. Some of Carpenter's shots and lines are plainly silly and worn out; even his original music is just loud and very metallic. But I had fun, and that's why I go to amusement parks, and to movie theaters showing the work of John Carpenter.

Copyright © 2001 Mark OHara

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