Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall
Directed by John Carpenter
Distributed by Powerhouse Films
Any list of John Carpenter’s “worst” films just wouldn’t be complete without Ghosts of Mars; it’ll probably even be at the top. It was a box-office bomb that sent a dispirited Carpenter into semi-retirement, Ice Cube has repeatedly dubbed it the worst film he’s ever made – don’t forget, this is the star of Are We Done Yet? – and it’s pretty much a punch line among fans; so why do I kind of dig it?
Ghosts of Mars allegedly started life as a third Snake Plissken adventure dubbed Escape from Mars, but the failure of Escape from L.A. put paid to those plans. The story follows a group of elite cops on Mars, who enter a mining town to collect an infamous criminal (Ice Cube) from jail, only to find the place abandoned. After some investigation, it turns out the long dormant spirits of Mars’ previous inhabitants have been unleashed, possessing most of the town and killing any humans they encounter. The cops have to team with the prisoners to survive, and it’s going to be a long night indeed.
It’s been noted elsewhere that Ghosts of Mars feels like a mixtape of Carpenter’s greatest hits; namely, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. There’s something charmingly out of date about the film’s sensibility, which made it stick out like a sore thumb back in 2001. The dialogue is pure b-movie cheese, the sets feel chintzy and the action is often stilted; a franchise starter it most certainly wasn’t.
Ghosts of Mars also has a needlessly complex structure, since the plot is being relayed in a post-mission briefing by lead cop Natasha Henstridge. So the story is being told in flashback, but characters within the plot tell her about events she wasn’t present for, so we get flashbacks within her flashback to those events; it even goes for the hat trick, with a flashback within a flashback within another flashback. It never fails to raise a smile when a character starts recounting where they’ve been, and a cheesy edit takes us into another unnecessary flashback.
The film also speeds past plot holes, like the fact that if you kill a possessed person, a ghost immediately exits the body, seeking the next vessel to possess. This creates the perfect enemy in a way, since if you kill them you just create a bigger problem. Carpenter mostly ignores this for the sake of a few action scenes, where entire waves of the possessed are wiped out without consequence. This awesome setup could have been milked for more tension, but it’s mostly squandered. The action is enjoyable, but the editing needed tightening since the choreography isn’t exactly graceful.
Ghosts of Mars feels like Carpenter was actively trying to sex up his style, featuring strange screen wipes and dissolves within shots, but they mostly come off as distracting. He also teamed up with some heavy metal folk for the soundtrack, which is a good deal rockier than his regular work, but still comes with that unique Carpenter edge. The ghosts themselves are a sorry bunch, with their leader Big Daddy Mars looking like a body building goth. The rest look like extras from an Italian rip-off of a Carpenter movie, and they never evoke any genuine menace.
The film also features Jason Statham’s first action role – he was up for the lead, but the studio insisted on a bigger name – and while his character is annoyingly sleazy, his performance is the most entertaining. Henstridge does well in the lead as a tough cop with a drug problem, but Cube just doesn’t convince at all, looking more bored than tough. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, with the normally great Clea DuVall looking utterly confused throughout, but Joanna Cassidy is fun as the doctor who accidentally unleashed the spirits among the planet. Sadly for her, she takes part in the worst scene, where her character is seen flying a balloon during a flashback, and the effects are so eye-wateringly poor the sequence should have been scrapped entirely.
So why, with so many glaring issues, do I still have a soft spot for this silly b-movie? Maybe because it was the first Carpenter movie I saw in cinemas, but also the fact it’s recognisably his. If Assault on Precinct 13 was his Rio Bravo, Ghosts of Mars is his Rio Lobo; a great director returning to a formula he knows best, and while the result isn’t nearly as fresh or creative, it’s still a good time for fans. It’s got all his recognisable tropes; a badass anti-hero, a siege, distrust of authority and it’s a Western dressed as a sci-fi movie. From a cold, hard critical standpoint it’s really not that good, but if it comes on television, odds are I’ll watch the whole thing and never once get bored.
Powerhouse Films did a nice job with the picture quality of Ghosts of Mars, though the high-def look has the downside of exposing how cheap some of the sets are. The old DVD extras are ported, including a charming commentary with Carpenter and Henstridge, plus featurettes looking at the shoot, the effects and the score. The disc also comes with a booklet containing an interview with Carpenter from 2001. The second part of his 1994 Guardian interview is also packaged – the first part can be found on Powerhouse’s Vampires Blu-ray – covering his career up to In the Mouth of Madness.
• Commentary by John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge
• 1994 John Carpenter video interview with The Guardian
• Scoring Ghosts of Mars featurette
• Special Effects Deconstruction
• Video Diary: Red Desert Nights featurette
• Theatrical trailer
• Booklet with new essay by Nick Pinkerton and archive Carpenter interview
• Concept art gallery