Ghosts of Mars
Cheese can be flavorful or rancid — the kind of cheese one sees on movie screens, as well as the edible kind — and John Carpenter, in his previous few films, had specialized in tasty cheese: unapologetic slices of genre entertainment for those who like it with edge and style. Vampires, despite its title, was really a grungy, bad-attitude Western, and even Carpenter’s much-maligned sequel/remake Escape from L.A. could be taken as a satire of itself. At his best, Carpenter works with a triple sense of intelligence, purpose, and fun.
Ghosts of Mars is not Carpenter at his best. It may very well be Carpenter at rock bottom. It lacks the three elements noted above: intelligence here is as sparse as breathable air on Mars, the movie feels pointless, and it’s almost completely humorless (except for the derisive chuckles earned by some of the dialogue — Carpenter had better jettison his script collaborator Larry Sulkis pronto). Ironically, Ghosts of Mars arrived the same weekend as Kevin Smith’s Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back; in both, well-loved cult directors pay tribute to themselves. But whereas Smith does it jokingly and self-deprecatingly, Carpenter does it half-heartedly, as if he had no energy left to do anything except lazily cannibalizing himself.
We’re on Mars, circa 2176; the red planet has been “terraformed” (made safe for human habitation) by Earth’s “matriarchal” society. (Does the whole matriarchy angle have any bearing whatsoever on what goes on in the movie? Nope, except to explain why many of the cops we see are female. The idea of a matriarchy is intriguing and completely ignored.) A bunch of cops, led by Natasha Henstridge, are assigned to transport a dangerous criminal known as Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). Ah, Carpenter and his bad-ass street names for anti-heroes: Napoleon Wilson (Assault on Precinct 13), Snake Plissken (the Escape films), and now Desolation, who turns out to be one of the few humans left alive in Chryse, the Martian town where he’d been stowed in jail.
Seems most of the humans have been possessed by Martian entities, who turn them evil, compel them to ravage their flesh, and force them to look like the extras in a bad Ozzy Osbourne video. Natasha and her cops (including Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, and Jason Statham) and Desolation and his fellow inmates join forces against the nasty Martian drones, who enjoy decapitating people and dangling the corpses upside down when they’re not sticking needles into their own flesh. Say this for the Martians — they know how to party.
This is recognizably a Carpenter film in theme (and plot) only. It feels like a shallow, made-for-cable wannabe-Carpenter ripoff. Anyone could have directed most of it; there’s a “sting” here and there as figures pop into the frame suddenly, but Carpenter’s detachment even extends to his musical score, which leans heavily on Anthrax crap-metal guitar riffs that dependably go whannggg … whonnggg every time the Martians or their stupid-looking leader (what is it lately with Carpenter and head villains who look like the lead singers of hair-metal bands?) show up.
The plot is entirely about how this ragtag group fights the siege, but Carpenter did it cheaper and better 25 years ago in Assault on Precinct 13. This time he also adopts a pointless flashback structure — sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks — and falls into the same self-spoiling trap that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 did: if you’re watching a story being told in flashback by a character in the present, you know that character survives! And here, you also figure everyone else dies except Ice Cube, who is first-billed on the posters. Carpenter, as always, gets the very top billing; the movie, on the screen as well as in the ads, is fully titled John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. A more apt title might’ve been Alan Smithee’s Ghosts of Mars.