FILM REVIEW: Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Ghosts of Mars (USA, 2001)
Directed by John Carpenter

Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Pam Grier

The 1990s were a bad time for John Carpenter. Having returned to form with They Live, the man who was once the king of low-budget horror served up a series of disappointments, from the Near Dark rip-off Vampires to the witless Escape from L.A.. But none of these misfires incite such fury and frustration as Ghosts of Mars, one of the lousiest, stupidest and worst thought-out movies outside Michael Bay's back catalogue.For starters, Ghosts of Mars looks really, really cheap. At a budget of $28m, it was among Carpenter's more expensive efforts, and yet it looks for all the world like it was made for less than a tenth of that. The film was shot in a gypsum mine in New Mexico, with all the rocks being painted red to make it vaguely resemble a Martian settlement. Every scene bar one is shot at night, in a move designed to disguise this low-tech approach but which only serves to emphasise it. The film's aesthetic is worryingly similar to Vampirella, a little-known 1990s turkey starring Roger Daltrey as a renegade vampire who lays low on Earth by posing as a rock star.The story of Ghosts of Mars finds Carpenter shamelessly ripping off his back catalogue. The idea of prisoners and cops constantly changing sides and teaming up to fight a greater foe is taken from Assault from Precinct 13, but with all the intelligence and social commentary taken out. The idea of ancient ghosts being bent on revenge is from The Fog, and the manner in which people become possessed by these ghosts is like a cross between The Thing and Prince of Darkness.

Ghosts of Mars also rips off at least a dozen other films, borrowing their respective styles at the expense of their collected substance. Being an action movie set on Mars with horror overtones and lots of violence, there is a natural comparison with Total Recall. But whereas Paul Verhoeven was able to use flesh-ripping violence to draw an audience into the story, Carpenter borrows the full-on gore and doesn't use it for anything other than shock value.The designs of the Martian base are not original either. With the angular sandy buildings and metal doors with circles in the middle, they look exactly like Tatooine at night. It's almost as though George Lucas met Carpenter for lunch, agreed to lend him the sets and had them shipped to New Mexico. There are other Star Wars knock-offs too: the sequence of the soldiers breaking into the power station is unforgivably close to Return of the Jedi, where the rebels break into the shield generator on Endor. Add in some grimy interiors from the Alien series and possessed miners who are somewhere between Braveheart and Mad Max, and you have one desperately derivative movie.The problem is not simply that Ghosts of Mars is made of seriously well-worn parts. There are dozens of films made each year which use familiar genre tropes and make for passable if forgettable viewing. The problem with Ghosts of Mars is that it is completely stone-faced about its place in the genre. It doesn't show contempt for science fiction or action-adventure, but it takes itself deadly seriously when what it should be doing is having fun. It is to Total Recall what Xanadu was to Flash Gordon: po-faced, naff, and completely misjudged.The story of Ghosts of Mars is almost non-existent. There is the thinnest of plots involving the transport of a dangerous convict from A to B, which is complicated by the fact that evil ghosts which used to live on Mars have been released from a mine. But the film ignores or dismisses every possible chance to spice things up, trotting through the backstory of how the ghosts got there and throwing away a potentially interesting idea about Mars being run by a matriarchal society. Such nuggets are treated like the dust on the planet's surface: characters ignore it as best they can and see it as a nuisance when it gets in the way.In the absence of any real story, the plot plays out like a video game. Every five minutes there has to be a big action sequence where faceless miners get killed, beaten or blown. And because killing the miners will just unleash the ghosts to possess someone new, there is an endless supply of cannon fodder on which the protagonists can empty their magazines in ever-more pointless shootouts. We keep going round and round in circles until the train arrives, and as soon as our heroes are on the train, one of them insists on going back to try and blow them up!The stupidity of Ghosts of Mars can be seen in its numerous plot holes. If the ghosts are indeed ghosts, how come they cannot pass through walls and doors: what is it about them which make them need to possess humans? And if they need human hosts to survive, what was keeping them 'alive' before the seal on the mine was broken? Were there other creatures on Mars before humans arrived that the ghosts preyed on? What caused them to be ghosts in the first place? Why are they here?!Then there are various technical questions about Mars itself. Martian gravity appears to be the same as it is on Earth, but there is no attempt to explain this via some kind of 'gravity field generator' or other such device. The planet has only been partially terra-formed, and yet the film expects us to believe that characters can tolerate this by wearing the kind of safety specs worn by A-Level chemists. None of the weapons seem to have been customised or built specifically for Mars, and despite there being less oxygen in the air, the fireballs are every bit as big as they would be on Earth.When Carpenter made Assault on Precinct 13, he was very careful to focus on the ethics of law enforcers trusting criminals with their guns. He kept the number of times that guns changed hands to a minimum, so that the claustrophobic tension would not be compromised. Ghosts of Mars is almost a parody of film shootouts in its complete disregard for common sense. There's barely a scene involving Ice Cube where the tables aren't turned or people pull out guns they never had before. This idiocy culminates in a scene where the criminals have their weapons confiscated, only to be armed with new ones seconds later.The acting in Ghosts of Mars is universally bad. Ice Cube plays a caricature of himself, attempting to exude attitude via scenery chewing but ending up as little more than obnoxious. Natasha Henstridge, who was cast at the last minute, seems to have only one facial expression and has no chemistry with her co-stars. Because the whole film is narrated by her in flashback, we already know that she will survive: there is no tension or reason to care, and because she is the only one found on the train, all the other characters are expendable.The supporting cast fare no better. Jason Statham tries his best but is nowhere near as enjoyable as The Transporter series, or even his brief appearance in Mean Machine. Pam Grier turns up to give the film some kind of genre credibility, but before long the script deems her unnecessary and she literally loses her head. Worst of all is Joanna Cassidy, most famous for playing Zhora in Blade Runner. She spends half her time bouncing off the walls pretending to be mad and half the time staring blankly into space, wondering what happened to her career.To say Ghosts of Mars is an abject failure would be doing a disservice to abject failures. It is easily the worst film of Carpenter's career, containing none of the wit, substance, polish or ambition of his heyday. The characters are paper-thin and dull, the acting is terrible, the script is weaker than dishwater and the direction is almost non-existent. It ranks alongside Captivity as an example of a once-great director hitting rock bottom, and is nothing short of dull, dumb and deeply depressing.

Verdict: Mind-numbingly terrible


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