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John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

GHOSTS OF MARS (2001)

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Clea DuVall

Written By: John Carpenter, Larry Sulkis Directed By: John Carpenter

The Short Version

Ghosts of Mars tends to have the worst rep of any John Carpenter film.

The rep’s undeserved.

No, it’s not original; yeah, the characters are one dimensional, but…

Hasn’t anyone heard of mindless, snack-munching action fun?

Keep your expectations real and have a blast with Ghosts of Mars.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

NACHO CHEESE DORITOS.

Snack away, my friends.


Pairs Well With...

SCHLITZ.

“And now that you’re done moppin’ the floor, why don’t you get me a beer, killer?”

Beer that tastes like beer and kicks it old school.  Just like this movie.

“Let’s just kick some ass.”

“It’s what we do best.”


Out of all of the films that John Carpenter has ever made, Ghosts of Mars tends to get the least respect.  Indeed, when the smoke cleared from the film’s initial release, Carpenter declared himself a “burnout” and walked away from Hollywood.  (He wouldn’t make another feature for nearly a decade.)

Both he and his film deserve better than what the crowd gave them back in 2001.

As for me, I’m one of approximately three critics on Earth who enjoyed it.  Ghosts of Mars is the kind of movie that just happens on its own when the plan hops out of Pandora’s Box and decides to visit some old familiar haunts for a while.  Sure, it still gets where John Carpenter wants it to go, but instead of the first class stateroom on Amtrak, it decides to travel as a roadie with a rock band.  The results are familiar but funky, a wee bit chaotic, and so full of fake Martian dust that no amount of polish will make it shine, but is exactly all of that dust and weirdness that makes Ghosts of Mars fun.

Even people who don’t like Ghosts of Mars overall tend to agree that it’s got a pretty sweet setup.  An overdue train pulls into Chryse, the capital city of Mars.  The train is on auto pilot, and its only passenger, a police officer named Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge, Species), is unconscious and handcuffed to a bunk.  Considering that the train was supposed to have a crew and that Ballard was part of a larger squad of officers sent to apprehend a notorious criminal named Desolation Williams (Ice Cube, Anaconda), the Martian Matriarchy (the planet’s governing council) has some very pressing questions to ask.  Once Ballard comes to, she’s brought before the Matriarchy for debriefing, and as they hear the story, so do we.  It’s a story of murder, mayhem, and – oh yes – the ghosts of Mars…

John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars is a movie defined by its “buts.”  (One “t”, not two, though with Natasha Henstridge and Jason Statham in the cast, I can understand if you’re confused.  There is tight leather involved, so by all means, carry on.)  Some of them translate as good news; some of them translate as bad news.  For example…

Ghosts of Mars tanked both financially and with critics at the time of its big screen release, but...

It’s worth noting that audiences already had some “Mars burnout” at the time, with Ghosts of Mars being closely preceded by both Mission to Mars and Red Planet, neither of which had been very well received, either.  It’s also worth noting that many of its advantages are magnified by the small screen experience, which also minimizes many of its disadvantages.  In other words, though I was among the few who enjoyed it right away at the multiplex, it really does play better at home.

Natasha Henstridge looks close to exhausted for most of the film, but…

She was first approached for the role just a week before filming began after Courtney Love had to drop out due to injury.  (The injury part is unfortunate, but talk about a major upgrade!)  What’s more, she’d just finished two back-to-back film shoots, and had originally intended to take a rest before this offer came up.  As it turns out, the tired look actually helps her performance here, because Ballard happens to be a drug addict.  (Really, if I hadn’t known the behind the scenes details, I’d have just figured that she was playing up that part of the role.)  It certainly doesn’t take away from anything else she does; she’s wide awake for the action scenes, and all there for the drama, as well.  Good thing, too, because as the actress playing the script’s only reasonably developed role, she’s carrying this flick on her back much of the time.

Jason Statham (The Mechanic) was originally cast as Desolation Williams, but…

Back in 2001, Statham was still looked at as an “up and comer,” so the powers that be decided to go with a “bigger name” for the male lead in the form of Ice Cube.  Statham holds his own in his one-dimensional supporting role as Jericho “Mr. Sexual Harassment” Butler (and gets his very first onscreen kiss in the process), but he deserves better, especially since Ice Cube’s just phoning it in here.  Speaking of…

“Desolation Williams” sure is a cool name, but…

Between the bland writing for the character and Ice Cube’s lackluster performance, the only things that look like they’re being desolated by Williams are the craft service table and the occasional syllable of English.  Which leads to…

Ghosts of Mars has a strong supporting cast, stocked with names like Jason Statham, Pam Grier (Above the Law), and Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), but…

Their talents sure are wasted on bland, one dimensional roles with dialogue that’s about as basic as one can get.  This is not Carpenter’s best character script, and he’s admitted as much himself.  All of the characters get away from him and never really come back except for Ballard, and that’s assuming that all of them were there in the first place.  Is that how he planned it?  Certainly not to this extent (too much falls flat), and yet…

This isn’t Carpenter’s most original script, either.  Most of Ghosts of Mars can be seen as a remake of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, but…

So what?  It’s fun, it’s very quickly paced, and the action scenes kick ass.  This is what effective junk food is supposed to look like, and if the formula works, then hey: the formula works.  It also allows most of the aforementioned deficiencies in Carpenter’s script to get a free pass.  This kind of flick doesn’t need to be complicated if it knows how to go “boom” properly.

Ice Cube called Ghosts of Mars the worst film he’s ever worked on, and said that John Carpenter really let everyone down with the visuals, but…

A man whose biggest contributions to film outside of Boyz N The Hood are Anaconda and the Friday movies even thinks about trash talking this flick, especially after he himself basically sleepwalks through his own role?  I’m all for actors freely expressing their opinions, but come on.  Glass house, Mr. Cube.  Besides, what was he expecting?  Had he ever seen a John Carpenter movie before?  They’re organic things about doing more with less, and often have a retro feel to them, even when they’re set in the future.  No, the special effects in Ghosts of Mars aren’t cutting edge, but that’s fine.  They don’t suck, either, and they deliver when they need to.  (Personally, I’m thrilled that Carpenter didn’t go whole hog CGI and actually bothered with real sets, physical makeup, and miniatures for most of the shots.  Special kudos for the mining town, which is a real, full-scale set built over a gypsum mine where the white gypsum has been dyed red with biodegradable food coloring.  The overall effect is “Mos Eisley abandoned in Hell.”  Kick ass.)  Besides, no one’s going to be reinventing Star Wars on this budget, especially when a large chunk of the money is going to pay for “star power” like Mr. Cube.

Those ghosts of Mars aren’t much more than angry balls of violence, are they?  No, but…

Again, they don’t need to be.  They’re a riff on zombies: they’re ghosts who have possessed the bodies of humans and made them functionally undead.  Their motives are made clear: exterminate every human life on Mars.  Doesn’t really require a whole lot of personality to accomplish that, does it?  No.  In fact, they’re scarier specifically because they’re so mindlessly focused on violence.  And on expressing their anger artistically by way of Extreme Body Piercing and Making Bustiers Out Of Spare Body Parts.  Hell, the fact that they’ve been given Hot Topic Gone Wild fashion sense automatically gives them more personality than 95% of anything that’s ever plodded through a George Romero flick.   I don’t care if he spends most of his screen time blustering incomprehensibly and angrily stalking about; Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone, Underworld) is frickin’ awesome.

As usual, John Carpenter wrote his own score.  That rocks in and of itself, but…

It’s not just him on synthesizers this time.  Instead, it’s a metal based score being played by Anthrax, Steve Vai, and Buckethead.  Yeah, you heard me.  Anthrax, Steve Vai, and Buckethead.  Sure, I’d have liked a better sound mix to take maximum advantage of the guitar-driven awesomeness, but still.  You want rockin’?  This is rockin’.  Get the soundtrack.

And give the movie a chance, too.  No, Ghosts of Mars doesn’t reinvent genre or do anything at all that’s particularly original (unless you count the score being played by Anthrax, Steve Vai, and Buckethead), and it seems like the movie gets away from Carpenter’s intentions on a few occasions, but so what?  It follows a well established formula that allows the audience to just kick back and enjoy while it kicks ass in a fashion that doesn’t require all that many spare brain cells to appreciate.  Yeah, the characters are flat and Ice Cube seems to have showed up primarily for the snacks, but who cares?  There’s still plenty of fun to be had for the genre fan.

Bottom line, Ghosts of Mars deserves better than the rep it got back in 2001.  If you like action with a sci fi bent to it, go ahead and give Ghosts of Mars a try, and if you saw it back in the day, consider yourself encouraged to give it another look.  Like many an underappreciated John Carpenter flick, this one’s gotten better with age.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2012


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