Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Larry Sulkis, John Carpenter. Produced by Sandy King. Music by Anthrax & John Carpenter. Photographed by Gary B. Kibbe. Edited by Paul C. Warschilka. Production designed by William A. Elliott. Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Richard Cetrone.
John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars is an exploitation film, pure and simple. It has a ridiculous plot that shamelessly steals from other sources, over-the-top violence, a preoccupation with sex, a wham-bam-thank-you-m’aam production style, and absolutely no money. None of these things make the movie bad. Its badness makes it bad. This is a hopelessly inept horror/space opera combo that is not scary, nor awe-inspiring, or convincing on any level other than that of a documentary about actors making a rotten film. That a movie this terrible could be directed by Carpenter, the legend, the icon…is stupefying. That a film this terrible also stars Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube and Jason Statham is…ok, not surprising at all, but still unfortunate to hear.
The plot is your typical horror grab bag of disparate characters thrown together in order to survive an attack by vicious monsters in a remote location. Here, the characters are a batch of space marines, civilians and felons, the vicious monsters are possessed humans with superhuman strength, and the remote location is a lonely space outpost on, yes, Mars. Slap these things together and you have a movie, and Carpenter has followed those instructions to the letter. In a lot of ways, it bears an uncanny resemblance to his Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), but that movie had personalities, style, intriguing conflicts and transcended its genre, at least a little.
Ghosts of Mars, unfortunately, is nothing but echoes of better material. You have the connection to Precinct 13, and you also have Mars locations that will remind you of (better-made) movies like Total Recall. The set design seems cobbled together with parts borrowed from the old warehouse where Star Trek props go to die. Joanna Cassidy shows up at one point, and we may be reminded of the character she played in Blade Runner, another sci-fi film made by a terrific director. The villains are basically zombies not unlike those seen in a zillion other movies, especially in how they can press others into joining their cause. And they carry and present themselves not unlike the Uruk-hai from Lord of the Rings, except for their leader, Big Daddy Mars (Richard Centrone), whose speech sounds like a cross between Chewbacca and the most psychotic ramblings of Homer Simpson. All of this stuff is off-the-shelf, and worn out from being utilized a hundred times already in better projects.
The shame of it is, I can kinda sorta buy Natasha Henstridge as a space marine. Or at least I buy her more than I buy the train that’s supposed to be taking them to the outpost when the movie begins. You see, kids, back in the days before CGI, if you wanted to depict vehicles going across an alien landscape, you used models. And model shots are expensive, so sometimes you try to use the same few over and over and hope no one will notice. Sometimes this can work, kids, but when your movie’s opening title sequence involves those shots? Not a good idea. But anyway, yes, Henstridge. A very pretty lady, and also toned and no-nonsense. I can see her as a marine. I don’t see her as a drug addict, which is something we learn about her, but…ok, this movie has plausibility issues.
Henstridge’s team is the usual assortment of military types: the grizzled and horny veteran, the rookie blonde kid, the boring white guy, and the spunky black commander. Mars is a matriarchy, we learn, which means if you want to sleep your way to the top you have to try being a lesbian, which explains the way Grier flirts with Henstridge but doesn’t really explain the presence of the two men, given how unskilled they are. I feel like this whole angle is meant solely to tease us with a lesbian love scene that will never materialize..which…I just hate being lied to, is all. Really, the film feels more dutiful than passionate in the way it applies its sexy stuff, which is weird considering who is present here. You may remember Natasha Henstridge, for example, as the alien who liked to take off her clothes a lot in Species. Thankfully, she played an alien who looked most of the time like Natasha Henstridge, so we allowed it.
Anyway, Henstridge’s marine team also consists of Pam Grier, Clea Duvall, and Jason Statham. I presume you all know Mr. Statham. You may remember Pam Grier from being a redeeming feature in a lot of 70’s blaxpoitation movies and also playing Jackie Brown. You may remember Clea Duvall from Girl interrupted or The Faculty, or maybe you have the good fortune of not remembering her at all. They arrive at a Mars mining town ostensibly to pick up a prisoner for transfer, but find the place deserted, which helps make the movie more affordable. They eventually find their prisoner still locked in a cell, and he’s played by Ice Cube. You may remember Ice Cube from Three Kings, or perhaps more recently from your last glass of water.
The film is framed with Henstridge answering questions in front of a Mars colony legal inquest, and then she recounts the recollections of her squadron mates, so we get flashbacks within flashbacks that are supposed to interlock with the other flashbacks, but the timing doesn’t seem to work. Then Statham learns something through some citizens who are holed up in a little shed hiding from the ghosts of Mars. And so we get their flashback within Statham’s flashback within Henstridge’s flashback. I was hoping at some point they would sit down with Big Daddy Mars and get his flashback and learn his side of the story.
So what happened to the miners? Well, they all became possessed by the ghosts of Mars. What are the ghosts of Mars? They’re spirits who were locked in a tomb, and are angry because other people are using their planet. So, they invade the bodies of human beings and turn them into violent, self-mutilating, head-spiking, blood-drinking, leg-chopping monsters. Such is how life goes in the frontier. Why did the Martians lock themselves in a tomb to begin with, anyway? Were they always energy beings, or did they evolve, and if they evolved, how come they’re so into killing things? And honestly, how lazy do you have to be as a species when you have to possess people to get anything done? See, this is why we need Big Daddy’s insight. This is just shameless anti-Martian propaganda.
Anyways, the ghosts of Mars (now the zombies of Mars) take their sweet time in planning their attack on the humans, and seem oddly collected despite the fact that their only methods of communications are deep grunts and deeper grunts. But eventually they do start attacking and Henstridge and her team have to team up with Cube and his team, a band of cutthroats that talk tough but a really kind of silly. One gets so high during their preperations for battle that he accidentally cuts off his own thumb. Yuk yuk yuk. Also: yuck.
The movie pauses for little bits of business. The rookie marine grows up and starts to talk tough like the veterans. Pam Grier sticks around just long enough to demonstrate the ironclad rule about black people in horror movies. Henstridge gets possessed by one of the creatures and has to defeat them, in a trippy sequence that agrees with the Church of Scientology’s notion that crazy aliens can gets inside your head and must be purged, but parts with their doctrine on whether or not drugs should be used to combat them. And Statham has a thing for Henstridge, hits on her for the entire movie in his crude, Statham-y way, and just when she relents and they’re about to get down to business, they’re interrupted. End of subplot. What was the point of that? No, seriously, that’s the payoff we get? Can I speak to your manager, movie?
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I say that eventually the story boils down to a buddy movie between Henstridge and Cube, so much so that the film’s concluding passages seem intent on tying up loose ends in a relationship that was never really there. I don’t really blame the actors here, since it’s clear they’re not being given enough to make this work—their relationship is just underdeveloped. This is fatal all the way to the film’s final shot which I think is meant to be rousing or fun or something, but it comes across (complete with its fade-out) as ridiculously cheesy. I can think of several other shots that would have provided a more satisfying ending to this piece, one of them being as simple as a “SCENE MISSING” title card.
Also I’m a little confused about the aliens here, because they’re balls of energy that can hop from person to person. So…wouldn’t it make sense to try to think of some precautions, so that when you kill one they don’t hop into your body? You’d think, but this whole development is treated as, you know, just this thing that happens, and what can you do? Honestly, it’s like the marines forget about it as often as possible. Thankfully, the body-hopping only occurs when the plot requires it, so that suits the marines’ disposition just fine.
I’m kidding this material, but I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with it. What’s wrong is Carpenter’s approach, and perhaps Carpenter’s involvement at all. When talented people make an exploitation film, I always have reservations, because by definition its makers are playing beneath their ability. An exploitation film is, after all, one that relies on shock tactics and not necessarily talent, so when established talent try their hand at it, it feels precious. The same issue bothered me about Grindhouse, in which Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, extremely talented people, both made movies that were intentionally of low caliber. Here, Carpenter goes for the same effect, and we’re left wondering if he’s kidding or not. If he is, then the whole enterprise still like a waste of (a little) money. If he isn’t, then…no…come on, he’s got to be.
I guess what it comes down to is whether you find movies like this fun. I can, but Carpenter seems unwilling to wallow in his own excess. It’s like he restrains himself because…my God…we’re not supposed to take this seriously, right? The film has no sense of humor, no sex, lame violence, unmemorable dialogue… Why is this supposed to be fun? Exploitation movies can be entertaining on some level, but this doesn’t work on any level. The problem isn’t that the story is stupid; that can work. It’s the fact that the whole production is borderline incompetent. And lazy. Exploitation movies tend to work their butts off to keep us interested. This one is apathetic.
Seriously, what has happened to John Carpenter? This movie was made more than a decade ago, and he’s stayed at this level of quality since. This is the man once brought us classics like Halloween, Escape From New York, Starman, They Live, The Thing and the first half of The Fog. Now he’s become the man who brought us The Ward, Pro-Life, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Escape From L.A., Vampires, and the second half of The Fog. He was once brilliant, and now it feels like his work is simply a dumping ground for half-baked ideas and his own peculiar obsessions (like Alan Moore’s new work in comic books). I feel uncomfortable and sad when I see a new Carpenter production these days, and I shouldn’t. At all.
I want to close this review with a close examination of the title. It’s not Ghosts of Mars. It’s John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. Putting your name in the title makes sense to me when it’s someone else’s work that a director is borrowing, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Or maybe when you want to differentiate your movie from someone else’s. But John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars? Was he afraid we would confuse it with someone else’s Ghosts of Mars? If anything, Carpenter does himself a disservice, because he submits a movie so listless we can’t help but imagine the vision that other people would bring to this material. Since Carpenter’s canon is soon to be nothing but films that have been remade, why not remake this one? I’ll even propose the title right here and now: Woody Allen’s Ghosts of Mars.