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 penchant 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.
©2001 by Dustin Putman