Friday, January 28, 2011

Ghosts of Mars

John Carpenter is probably the most revered living directors working in the horror genre, yet a surprising number of his films were initially unsuccessful before becoming popular as “cult” classics. Movies like The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China flopped in the theaters, but found a place on home video, and are well regarded today. I had not watched his last release, Ghosts of Mars, since its initial release, and wondered if it, like the others, might have grown in stature in the years since.

The movie is set in 2176. Mars has been settled, and partially terraformed, with a more or less breathable atmosphere. Society has gone matriarchal for some unexplained reason, an interesting concept that is never really explored in the film. A group of police officers, led by Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) is dispatched form Chryse, one of the major towns (I suppose) to a mining camp to pick up the notorious criminal “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube). Included in the team is the real star of the film, Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) and Sergeant Jericho Butler (Jason Statham, when he still had hair). They arrive at the camp to find everyone dead. It seems a dig has released the ghosts of ancient Martians, who have infected most of the locals, turning them into insane, self-mutilating killers. (It’s basically a zombie movie.) The police force will have to work with the criminals to survive.
Well, Ghosts of Mars really hasn’t improved with age. Sometimes movies simply don’t come together the way filmmakers wanted them to, and this is probably a good example.

There is a framing sequence to the story of Lt. Ballard testifying before a board of inquiry about what happened, and it doesn’t really work. The only purpose it serves is to let you know Ballard will be the only survivor, and that spoils a little of the suspense. It also means the bulk of the movie is told as a flashback, and any time something needs to be presented from the point-of-view of another character, it cuts back to the board room so Ballard can explain the sequence is based on what she was told by another character. That’s too clunky, and it makes for one of those flashback-within-a-flashback things that are so hard to pull off.

Special effects look fairly low budget, and they resort too often to the cheap shot of a stunt person jumping in front of an explosion to illustrate its force. This always looks ridiculous, and it’s done every time something blows up in the movie. A lot of things blow up in the movie. It looks like your kids playing on a trampoline, while you hurl grenades behind them.

The police/paramilitary force may be the worst cops ever shown on screen. If a bad guy flashes a knife, they instantly drop all their weapons, and then after they are disarmed and helpless, begin to bluster about how they don’t care if they die. That would be more effective done while they still had their guns, for your information. They also do nonsensical things to further the plot. The one hardened site in the camp is the police station, difficult to penetrate, with ammunition and other supplies inside. They abandon it not once but twice, so they can have running gun battles with the zombies/mutants/Martians. At one point, they set up a perfect kill chute, where the bad guys have to come at them no more than two at a time. They quickly retreat from that position, lest they kill all the bad guys and end the movie prematurely. Half the movie is spent with the characters trying to reach the train, so they can escape the camp. As soon as they reach it and are safely away, they decide they have to turn back.

The cast generally acquits themselves well, although there are some casting decisions that make you chuckle long after the fact. Statham was originally set to play Desolation Williams, but was switched to a lesser role since Ice Cube had more “star power.” Statham might have been better in the role, but that possible loss is balanced by Henstridge replacing the original lead Courtney Love, which would have been an interesting choice, to say the least.

The bare bones of the plot are basically a re-working of Carpenter’s first real success, Assault on Precinct 13, which itself was a re-do of Howard Hawks’ classic western Rio Bravo. (To make things more convoluted, Hawks more-or-less remade his film twice as well, with El Dorado and Rio Lobo.) Therefore, it is essentially a science fiction western, but whatever magic was present with Assault on Precinct 13 was not accessible here.

The biggest tragedy of Ghost of Mars is that Carpenter felt burnt out after making it, and it would be almost ten years before he directed his next film, the forthcoming move The Ward.


Peter Andrew Leonard said...

Nice write up, Joe.
Pretty insightful.

Rabid Fox said...

First of all, I was unaware of the connection to Rio Bravo, but that is one of my favorite movies--assuming I'm right in thinking that's the one with Dean Martin--and I should have known that.

Secondly, this was a terrible movie, Ghosts of Mars that is, and was all the worse in my view because I watched it shortly after seeing Pitch Black.

KentAllard said...

Fox, Rio Bravo is also Carpenter's favorite movie (supposedly). He originally intended to shoot Assault on Precinct 13 as a western, but couldn't afford to make it a period piece.

Anonymous said...

Sure, GHOSTS has it's obvious faults, but it's STILL Carpenter. And, Chevy Chase as the INVISIBLE MAN aside, bad Carpenter is still better than most of a lot of other director's best work IMO.
So, while I'd hardly place it among my top favs, GHOSTS OF MARS is definitely a guilty pleasure of mine.
I've never understood the outright hatred that so many others have for it.
Fact is, I think it's probably Carpenter's second most underrated/misunderstood film after his VAMPIRES. Yet another of his rather thinly disguised westerns. Which, I just happen to love. To me, it's a bit of a classic.
Too bad not too many other folks feel thge same way about it...

KentAllard said...

brk, I probably grade it a little tougher because it's Carpenter. If it had been some hack, I probably would have cut him a lot of slack. I don't know if it qualifies as a guilty pleasure, but VAMPIRES is a favorite of mine.

I still regret he didn't get to direct CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back in the 80s.