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Ghosts of Mars
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   John Carpenter
Genre:   Action / Science Fiction
Released:   August 24, 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   5/10 (What Is This?)

For every John Carpenter movie that is pure genius (The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness) or a B-movie masterpiece (Big Trouble in Little China), there is a John Carpenter movie that is 100% pure mediocrity. Ghosts of Mars falls squarely into the latter category.

Ghosts of Mars is watchable. I don't think there was really any moment during the movie where I thought, "Sweet Mother of Invention, why did I pay money to see this fly-ridden cowflop?" Nonetheless, there is also very little of note in Ghosts of Mars.

Excuse me, I meant to say John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. Before that there was John Carpenter's Vampires…. For a while now, when you rented a John Carpenter movie, the video jacket has said "John Carpenter's Halloween", and such, but when, exactly, did they start putting his name in the title during its initial theatrical release? (Paging movie know-it-alls, this isn't a rhetorical question. Please give me an answer.)

Yes, John Carpenter has become a franchise, like Disney. They put his name in front of the movie, like Disney (Disney's The Kid, Disney's Blank Check, Disney's Air Bud). Presumably because people seeing the preview would not be particularly inclined, based solely on the preview, to go watch the movie. Quick test: Those of you who already bought your ticket to Ghosts of Mars. When you saw the preview, did you think "Dude, that's going to be kick-ass flick!" or did you think "Well, the movie looks like it might be okay, but John Carpenter directed it, so hopefully it'll be good"?

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Now, I'm not saying that John Carpenter's best years are behind him or anything. After all, In the Mouth of Madness was more than decent and pretty recent. So I'll probably continue to see John Carpenter's Latest Movie, Directed by John Carpenter, The Master of Suspense, Blah, Blah, Blah because I know there's a heads-or-tails chance that I'll see something inspired. This time around, though, the nickel came up tails.

One of the cool things about Carpenter is that he's such a steadfastly old school filmmaker. For better or worse, he makes movies as if it were still the 80s. Ghosts of Mars has got to be the least flashy "people on an alien planet" movie made in decades. The budget is modest. The special effects are serviceable… barely. It is, in spite of its flaws, refreshing for its bare bones approach. It's a throwback to the age when you could take a few people who look good in leather, put 'em in the middle of the desert with some guns, add a few strangely dressed psychotic bad guys, and call it sci-fi.

Carpenter populates Mars with a cast of fun and interesting genre refuges: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge (Species), Jason Stratham (Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), Clea DuVall (The Faculty), and Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). There's even Pam Grier, star of such classics as Foxy Brown, Coffy, Women in Cages, and Scream, Blacula, Scream. Carpenter has used her before (Escape From L.A.), as have Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown) and Tim Burton (Mars Attacks). Robert Carradine has a part too, either because Carpenter has watched Revenge of the Nerds a few dozen times (who hasn't?), or because Robert is a genetic heir to the throne of the late John Carradine, who appeared in (no exaggeration) more than a hundred B-genre pictures.
Ghosts of Mars is about these ghosts, you see, these ghosts on Mars, and… ah, who cares about the plot? It's all about the carnage. Like many of Carpenter's movies, Ghosts of Mars is just a straight-up action movie thinly disguised as speculative fiction. Take Vampires, for example, which had some great ideas (The Vatican hires mercenary vampire killers?) that were abandoned in favor of blood baths and macho posturing. (See also Escape from New York.)

What's good about Ghosts of Mars? Well, the soundtrack, obviously (Gotta love Carpenter's scores), except for the lame 80s metal during the fight scenes… hold up… just found this out… Anthrax worked on the soundtrack too … What, Ice Cube was too busy starring in the film to tell Carpenter that the era of Ratt, W.A.S.P., Slayer and Dokken has passed?

Another good thing: Carpenter manages to introduce and kill off tons of characters, each with a distinct and memorable presence. Okay, you may not actually care about many of the characters who get popped off one by one, but you will remember them.

The way Carpenter tells the story and introduces his characters is also quite interesting. The movie is told entirely in flashback, sometimes flashback within flashback within flashback. Carpenter also makes use of a trippy kind of time-lapse cut, in which the cut sometimes only advances the time-line by a few seconds. Unfortunately, Carpenter doesn't bother with cool narrative tricks like "the unreliable narrator"; and the storyline, though told in a slightly convoluted fashion, is simple enough to be condensed into about three six-word sentences. There's really no mystery about who's going to survive and who isn't, and it doesn't take a foreshadow forecaster to figure out exactly how Natasha Henstridge ends up handcuffed and alone on a Mars ghost train.

Carpenter basically teases us. He uses some creepy haunted house props (wicked surgical instruments, mysterious charms and fetishes), but doesn't follow-up. He gives us some survival-horror video game scenarios a la Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Parasite Eve, but doesn't take the time to really psyche the audience into that desperate you're-always-just-a-heartbeat-away-from-a-terrible-death mentality. And he gives us characters who could be really interesting if only they were given more time to interact.

Everything's pretty good, until the action kicks in. The fight scenes are stubbornly standard (with the exception of some truly effective "good guys get diced with flying sawblades" FX sequences). Kick, punch, slash, shoot, blow stuff up. Then repeat endlessly until the movie is over. The action wasn't bad, but considering it is the centerpiece of the movie, it should have been a hell of a lot more interesting. After all, if you're going to defy all the laws of logic and narrative flow to guarantee a steady body count, you better show me something I can't get from watching Angel, Witchblade, or Highlander.

One last thing: the ghosts of Mars possess humans, taking over their bodies, and then when the host is killed, the spirit moves on to someone else. We're supposed to get some suspense from the idea that a ghost could rush into the skull of one of the characters at any time. But later on in the movie, when the good guys are gunning down ghost-infested humans like a bunch of Elmer Fudds during wabbit season, you realize that the amount of ghosts they must be releasing into the atmosphere outnumber the main characters at least six to one. Then you start to check your watch to see how long it takes before the extra ghosts bum-rush the humans and make this whole Gunfight at the O.K. Corral stuff a moot point. But they never do. Why? Because Carpenter's got seven more cases of squibs and machine gun blanks that he needs to use up.


RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers still has seven more cases of Colt 45 he needs to use upÖ noÖ waitÖ that's Billy Dee Williams, though it's easy to get them mixed up because Billy Dee is tall, dark, suave and wealthy, and Jason isÖ tall.

 
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