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Ghosts of Mars

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars

The Master Swings, but Misses

by Jim Bray

John Carpenter is such a good and independent filmmaker he deserves a little slack. After all, his films are always interesting and imaginative, and he's constantly risking commercial disaster by following his own path through Hollywood.

Yet in his illustrious carerr so far he's brought us "cult" classics like Starman, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, Dark Star (which he made as a college project) and the brilliantly funny martial arts/action sendup Big Trouble in Little China.

He's also done a couple of comparative dogs along the way, notably Escape from L.A. and Prince of Darkness. Yet even these films were at least different from the mindless pap Hollywood usually churns out to make a quick buck (though Escape from L.A. may actually qualify as that, alas.)

This time, Carpenter turns his auteur's vision onto the Red Planet, and we went in hoping that, at last, there'd be a Mars film on the par with the excellent Total Recall.

Alas, 'twas not to be. This time, the mighty Carpenter has struck out. Not completely, mind you, but for the most part.

The premise is promising: after human colonization of Mars, the people there discover a buried ancient native (well, we assume it's native) species that appears to have been dead for ages. These people, or whatever they are (they're the Ghosts of Mars, of course) don't take kindly to outsiders taking over their planet and fight back. Their method of warfare is to take over the invaders, possessing them, and causing them to go nuts and kill each other.

Fair enough. Interesting concept that hearkens back to such Mars literary classics as Heinlein's works like Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land.

Unfortunately, the concept is never followed through logically, not that logic has ever stood in Carpenter's way before! But his films at least follows a kind of internal logic, and this is thrown to the winds of Mars in this flick. So what could and should have been another great John Carpenter horror movie (he's the guy who made The Thing, Halloween, Vampires, Village of the Damned, Christine and The Fog, among others, after all), ends up being little more than an apparently low budget action yarn falls down under its own weight.

Ghosts of Mars' biggest problem is the stupidity of the characters, some of whom are professional soldiers who are supposedly able to think on their feet (or at least that's what we assume of professional soldiers). Evidence: the discover that whenever they kill someone who's possessed by a ghost, the ghost leaves that body and slips quickly into another nearby one - and it could even be them. Despite this, they don't try to merely incapacitate or stun the enemy: they shoot to kill. And as the bodies fall, other bodies are taken over, in what amounts to an interplanetary repossession operation.

Well duh!

You'd think they'd at least learn from their mistakes after killing the first coupla ghosts. But no.

Okay, maybe they didn't have access to stun bombs, but why not just shoot the possessed people (who are, after all, innocent victims) in the knees?

Then again, that would take skill and these are, after all, only professional soldiers...

The cast is okay. Natasha Henstridge is given a golden career opportunity as the lead character, Lt. Melanie Bradford, and though she isn't bad, it appears she isn't yet ready to carry an entire film. We look forward to her craft improving to the point that she can. Ice Cube, the "musician" who was actually pretty good in Three Kings, plays fugitive "Desolation" Williams. He's okay, too. Just okay. Pam Grier is better, perhaps because she's been around longer. She plays Capt. Braddock, the leader of the military force, but she's offed and her head put onto a pike, so that ends her use as a thesppian.

The main flaw with the film, as hinted at above - and which is the main flaw in most movies, is Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter's screenplay. Must have been an off day.

Carpenter, as is often the case, wrote the movie's musical score. He's usually pretty good, with heavy use of percussion and synthesizers. Unfortunately, this was an off day for him, too. This soundtrack is more like the hard rock soundtracks found in movies like Final Fantasy and Titan A.E. and, as with those films, it's intrusive and gets in the way of the film's mood.

In the end, you have to give John Carpenter some slack. Not everyone creates a minor masterpiece every time, and it isn't as if Ghosts of Mars isn't worth watching at least once.

The Special Edition DVD is pretty good. The digitally mastered anamorphic widescreen picture, 16x9 TV compatible, looks very good, though it's apparent that this dark movie is a compatively low budget one, and it shows. The audio (digitally mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround) doesn't really leap out at you, unfortunately.

Extras include a commentary track by John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge, a video diary, special effects "deconstructions," a featurette on the music: "Scoring Ghosts of Mars." You also get filmographies.

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, from Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
98 minutes, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) 16x9 enhanced, 5.1 Dolby Digital
Starring Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier and Joanna Cassidy
Written by Larry Sulkis & John Carpenter
Produced by Sandy King, Directed by John Carpenter.


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Updated May 13, 2006