Ghosts of Mars review by The Grim Ringler

It’s never a good feeling watching someone whose work you like falter. No one is perfect, and most artists are lucky if their good outweighs their bad. With someone like John Carpenter, who has directed some classic genre films (The Thing, Escape From New York, Halloween…), it’s hard to feel too bad about his slow decline. Most directors are lucky if they make one influential film let alone three or more. Sure, the legends can boast that they have made a mountain of classics, but those are the legends, the Spielbergs, Scorseses, Kurosawas and on and on. As soon as you get into the genre films though, the fringe movies, which never really seem to catch on with the masses (and when I say genre here, I mean horror, sci-fi, or just plain weird movies), it’s even harder to find films of both quality and importance. Sadly, most genre films are crappy get-rich-quick schemes relegated to video and gobbled up by teenage fanboys and lazy film fans. There are some legendary genre filmmakers though, and John Carpenter truly is one of them. But again, to say that he’s been knocking out classics in the past decade would be a lie. To me, the really wonderful film he made was Prince of Darkness, a dark, sci-fi take on the old horned hater of god. Now, I liked Mouth of Madness, and I thought Village of the Damned was pretty good, Vampires was decent but lackluster, and finally we have Ghosts of Mars, a film that, when seen recently, is a lot better than I gave it credit for being. But it still ain’t great.

Set in a future that finds the earth under a matriarchal rule, Man has conquered the red planet. Though it is still a savage landscape ruled by sandstorms and darkness, Mankind seems to have finally tamed Mars and is slowly colonizing. What Man never counted on though was that original occupants of the world may be forgotten, but they are surely not gone. An elite police unit (aren’t they all?) is headed for a small mining settlement where mysterious criminal ‘Desolation’ Williams is being held for murder. It’s apparent as soon as the small police force arrives on the scene that things are not as they should be here – the streets are empty, the there is no sound of people or industry, and it looks as if this once vibrant town has been abandoned. They find out wrong that first impression is though when several decapitated bodies are found hanging upside-down in one building. The first person to be suspected is Williams, someone accused of doing the same thing to six people in another town, but that theory falls apart when they find Williams safe and sound in his cell. The disappearance of the police force’s commander and the sudden re-appearance of her severed head lead to the grim discovery that the mining town has gone mad and that its inhabitants, each of them ritualistically disfigured, won’t be satisfied until everyone in the town is dead. It seems that some scientists, while excavating a nearby area, happened upon the ghostly remains of Mars’s previous inhabitants, who are none to happy to find that their home has been invaded so they begin inhabiting the bodies of the invaders. Faced with an army of bloodthirsty killers, in a secluded town with no easy means of escape, the police force, lead now by the second in command, forge an uneasy alliance with Williams, the man they had come to take to prison, as their only hope of surviving.

As cheesy as all this may sound, it’s actually pretty well achieved. The action is plentiful, the idea is solid (though it’s VERY heavily influenced by a classic Ray Bradbury short story), and there are real, live actors here – even if they are B-actors. Carpenter took what could have been a turd, and made it into a fun little sci-fi/horror film. It isn’t great, but it’s a fun film. What makes it interesting are the small things he adds, like the fact that our heroine is a junkie, that Man’s ceaseless greed for land and riches has lead them to open a virtual Pandora’s box, and that a good lot of the cast is expendable. As a lot of his films are, this is essentially a Western. The pioneering settlers have wandered onto land that wasn’t theirs and have claimed it and now the original occupants, the ‘natives’, want their land back. It’s an old tale, but it still holds true – when you conquer a new land, make sure you understand what you are getting into. There is also a feeling of, hell, I dunno, fun here. It seems like everyone was enjoying themselves, though, if you were to read Ice Cube’s feelings about the film, he is less than enthusiastic in having been in it.

There are some huge issues I have with the film, the biggest being the script, which tries way too hard to be cutesy and clever. It’s a solid story, so don’t go wrecking things with silly banter. Don’t get me wrong, there are some awfully clever lines here, but it tries so hard to be a quote worthy action romp that it ruins the mood here. This is a bleak movie, with a bleak ending that is all but ruined with a stupid script gag. I also got sick of the fact that through the entire film one male character is desperately trying to get into the second in commands pants. Worse, she almost lets him. All that nonsense doesn’t help the film; it just gives you a creepy vibe about his character. And while I realize that this was a moderately low budget film but man alive some of the bluescreen work looks embarrassing. Someone should have seen this stuff and re-thought how to accomplish what they wanted. Finally, the other thing that really bothered me here was the musical score, which is just too invasive and over-the-top, a trend Carpenter has had of late. He can create very simple, very effective synth scores which drill into you and stick in your head well after the film is over but I’ll be damned if he isn’t trying too hard to mix it up. This time around he uses metal band Anthrax (a bad I like) to create a disconcerting wall of sound to accompany the actions scenes but the score is way too heavy-handed and it feels and sounds way too much like the same three musical pieces are being used over and over again. It’s monotonous and gets in the film’s way.

The commentary track is the usual from Carpenter, but isn’t as bad as some of his have been, and the extras consist of a couple of making of featurettes, which are fun to see but don’t offer more than cursory glances into this film. The sound is good and the disc looks great, especially for a film completely set during the ‘night’.

While there are a lot of things that really do bug me about Ghosts of Mars, there is much more that I like. This is far from his best work, but it’s a very solid, very fun movie with a lot to offer. The saddest thing to me is that it makes you wonder what Carpenter could do with a really good script, some time, and a re-newed vision.

7 out of 10 Jackasses
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