John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars
review by Joe Barlow, 31 August 2001

In the year 2176 AD, the face of technology marches ever onward. The planet Mars has been no stranger to change over the past 200 years: thanks to the miracle of terraforming, the red planet now has the ability to sustain life. 640,000 colonists call the dusty ball home, fighting to tame the harsh frontier.

In the outpost of Chryse City, a badly damaged commuter train returns on auto-pilot. Investigators soon discover that the vehicle is deserted, save for a Martian police officer named Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who has been severely wounded and chained to a bed railing. Demanding an immediate report, the Martian rulers hold an exploratory hearing. This is the setting for most of the story, which is told in flashback as Ballard narrates the events that preceded her strange arrival in Chryse City. Ballard spins quite a tale, one which the committee has a great deal of trouble swallowing. Melanie had been sent, along with her commander Helena (Pam Grier) and a host of other police officers, to Shining Canyon Station (a place rather like Star Wars's Mos Eisley, but without the pulse) to supervise the transfer of prisoner James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) to a more secure locale. Williams, a fiendishly intelligent criminal, is suspected of murdering six people, and requires close supervision -- hence the large detail of police.

Once inside the jail, however, Ballard and her companions find several anomalies, not the least of which is the complete absence of all the guards -- the inmates, literally, have taken over the asylum. Even more bizarre, arguably, is the discovery of Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), a woman who voluntarily committed herself to the prison because, she said, jail was "the last safe place" for her. When prompted for an explanation, she reveals that a strange force has been unleashed on the surface of the planet, something with the ability to possess a person's mind and body, converting them into a helpless puppet controlled by an unseen force -- a Ghost of Mars. Is Williams behind the disappearances of the prison staff, or do Whitlock's claims have any basis in fact? This is what Ballard and her friends must find out. (Hint: Look at the title of the movie.)

Although brimming with expensive-looking costumes and sets, Ghosts of Mars has a darker, grittier feel than much of Carpenter's recent work; in terms of tone, it's far more similar to the sparse Assault on Precinct 13 than, say, In the Mouth of Madness. The film is part ghost story and part war flick, and contains a great deal of suspense and action. Or, more correctly, it contains a great deal of suspense, followed by a great deal of action. If you've seen Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn, you'll understand what I mean: the first half of the story, which sets the plot in motion, is primarily concerned with establishing a dark, brooding, atmosphere full of intrigue and mystery. The movie's second half, on the other hand, is concerned with blood, death, quick editing, and lots of running and jumping. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the mindless (and at times overwhelming) amount of action can catch viewers off-guard if they aren't prepared.

As always, John Carpenter is confident and sure behind the camera, giving us a film that looks consistently terrific, if uncomplicated from a technical standpoint. He's the consummate cinematic craftsman, known to spend insane amounts of time on any given shot in order to get it photographed in exact accordance to his wishes. I'm not sure where the film ranks in Carpenter's canon, however: Ghosts of Mars is not Halloween or The Thing -- heck, it's not even Vampires -- but one gets the sense that the director wasn't trying to best his other films. There are none of the usual Carpenter trademarks that die-hard fans such as myself have come to expect, including highly stylistic camera movements and long, unbroken takes. Ghosts, in many ways, feels more like homage to the genres of the past, including the western picture (Carpenter's acknowledged favorite genre), and the beloved zombie flicks of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, etc).

I cannot gush enough about the film's excellent art and production design, which paint the dusty plains of Mars in a strikingly beautiful way. Filmed almost entirely at night, the movie's set design emphasizes the stark loneliness and isolation of the titular locale, with red-tinged dust clinging to every conceivable surface, and yet even amongst the blood and carnage of the final act, the planet is never anything less than hauntingly beautiful. The sense of Mars as a real place came through quite clearly here -- no small feat.

John Carpenter is a master (or at least a frequent employer) of abrupt, ambiguous endings, and Ghosts of Mars continues his tradition of crafting a conclusion that raises more questions than it answers. Although this lack of closure is often unsatisfying on the first viewing, it does give Carpenter's best work a tenacity that far surpasses other filmmakers' more prosaic offerings. But Ghosts of Mars is a little disappointing because it spends so much of its time implying closure and resolution (via its use of flashbacks), and then not following up, or even explaining the origin of the things we see. I can't decide if the film's final scene is left ambiguous for dramatic effect, or merely because Carpenter and Screen Gems are hoping to spin the story off into a sequel. It seems like the wrong choice to me, but it's a small flaw in an otherwise enjoyable action-adventure-horror-sci-fi romp.

(Be warned, however: there is rather a lot of blood and gore here -- including a number of graphic decapitation sequences -- that could potentially upset more sensitive viewers. Factor this into your viewing decision.)

Directed by:
John Carpenter 

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

Written by:
John Carpenter 
Larry Sulkis

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian.

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