Ghosts of Mars
Release Date: August 24, 2001
Genre: Sci-Fi, Horror, Action
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: John Carpenter, Larry Sulkis
Starring: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea DuVall, Liam Waite, Joanna Cassidy
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
John Carpenter is my all time favorite filmmaker. There’s no denying he is an auteur in film. His influence has spread to generation after generation of new filmmakers. Despite the majority of his movies not being big box office successes, they’ve had a robust longevity due to the cultural impact his movies have on today’s world. Unfortunately his career started to slow in the 90s due to the decline of audience’s interest in horror movies. By the end of 2001, Carpenter quit Hollywood and stayed in exile until 2010 when he returned with a small independent horror movie “The Ward”. Since then Carpenter has been focusing more on his music, which has been a staple of his movies since he writes and perform his own music. He’s toured all over the world. This year he is returning as an Executive Producer in a 40 year anniversary ‘Halloween’ Remake/Sequel.
I could review any of my favorite movies from him, but that would be too easy. I decided to review the movie that made him throw in the towel as a director. I’m talking of course about 2001’s “Ghost of Mars”.
The film takes place on Mars (hence the title) in the year 2176. The planet is close to being a hundred percent teraformed. It focuses on a small group of Martian police. They are assigned to go to a mining village called ‘Shining Canyon’ and pick up a prisoner for transfer. The prisoner they are picking up is notorious criminal James “Desolation” Williams. When the team arrives at ‘Shining Canyon’, it is completely inhabited. The team splits up. One team searches each building and finds bodies hanging upside down in the ceiling, all kinds of wires and mutilated body parts. Another team heads to the holding cells where they find Williams and a few other survivors. One of the survivors, who is a researcher and head of the mining operation reveals that they found an enclosed tomb buried under the Martian surface and let out a spiritual force that possesses any living being in its range. If you kill the host, the spirit is released and will head to the next host. One of the team members searches further into the mining field and sees the miners acting bizarre and violent. He witnesses a leader performing ritual killings. What became a simple prisoner transfer now becomes a fight for survival. They must not only escort the survivors to safety and take them out of the village, but they must find a way to stop these spirits from reaching the next big city on Mars.
I don’t think this movie is as bad as everyone claims it to be. Yes, there are a bunch of issues which I’ll get to in a minute, but I think the biggest issue was the misconception of the film. The movie was marketed as a horror movie. When audiences went to see it, there wasn’t a lot of Horror to be seen. I didn’t like this movie at first because I didn’t think it was a Horror movie. I decided to give it a few more viewings and my perception changed because I realized that this wasn’t a Horror movie at all. For me, “Ghosts of Mars” is more of a Sci-Fi Western. It borrows a ton of elements from many Western films including one of Carpenter’s first film, the 1976 Urban Western Suspense Thriller “Assault on Precinct 13”. While the setting is on Mars, you can tell from the sets and the red sand, that it has a Western feel to it. You have five members of the police force slowly making their way through the town in a way of cowboys and outlaws do when they arrive into towns on their horses. The ghosts and the monsters in the movie represent the American Indians in Western movies. The ghosts represent the spirits of an ancient Martian tribe who were on the planet long before any human beings and the monsters they inhabit is their physical essence as they are going around killing the townspeople. They see the humans as “savages” and invaders of their territory, which Joanna Cassidy brings up in the film when asked about what their objective is, which preserve is and defend their land. Another element that is commonly found in Western movies that appears in “Ghost of Mars” is the last stand scenes. The remaining survivors are held up in the Shining Canyon police station and barricade it from anyone trying to get in. They set up a plan to defend themselves until the train arrives to pick them up. You have the monsters trying to get in by use of a battering ram. As soon as they break through, the fighting begins. It’ lifted straight from “Assault on Precinct 13” (minus the battering ram portion). There’s nothing wrong with that. I like movies where you have to use your surroundings and use what you have inside to protect yourself from the enemy. You’ll see plenty of action during this scenario with guns, explosives, hand to hand combat, limbs flying all over the screen.
Another positive of the movie is the music. Once again the music is composed by Carpenter himself. The opening credits contain Carpenter’s simple bass synth sound. However, he did get some assistance this time with the help of Scott Ian from Anthrax and the legendary guitarist Buckethead. The music is heavily layered with guitar riffs, especially during the last stand fight. It’s loud and booming and fits well with the action sequences.
I also enjoyed the special effects, especially the scenes where you see the ghosts from a first person perspective. There are scenes where an infected human gets killed either through self infliction or being shot at. Once the host is dead, the ghost is released and looks for another human host. The camera goes into a first person view with blurry orange/yellow colors representing the ghost. When they enter a host, they don’t speak. They begin to physically harm the host through self mutilation. I’m not sure if the ghost is trying to feel pain or feel human. It’s not explained in the movie.
The problem that this movie faced was the milquetoast acting and bad editing. I’ve already talked about the concept, so we’ll go to the acting. The film stars Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea DuVall and Liam Waite. Ice Cube plays Desolation Williams. Ice Cube has the look of a tough hardened criminal and kicks plenty of Martian ass in the movie, but he doesn’t really act like it throughout this film. He comes off as being mellow, not giving a crap about what’s going on and playing the sorry for yourself role when he talks about there’s nothing for him on this planet. You can’t really sympathize with a character unless you know their background, which the movie fails to do. All they mention about Williams is how he’s beaten the rap several times, but they don’t go into his history nor does he explain why he acts the way he does and why he feels everyone is out to get him.
The police force (Henstridge, Statham, Grier, DuVall and Waite) have no chemistry together. Stahatam is the comic relief in the film and he at least tries to build up a relationship with Henstridge, but not in a professional manner. He comes off as cocky, arrogant and trying to use his silver tongue to seduce Henstridge to “dance” as he would say in the movie. He is definitely the best actor in the movie. Henstridge comes off as bored and exhausted (which I found out in the Trivia she fell ill during this movie since she started immediately after finishing work on another movie) but she makes up for it with her pretty face.
The Bad Actor Award goes to the Martian Leader. His dialogue is literally gibberish. Although I found out in the trivia that the prosthetic was so large for his mouth he could only make vowel sounding words. He used that to developed his language, but still it comes out gibberish. You could take someone off the street, put them in a costume and randomly speak gibberish (which I’m sure is what they did).
What also bothers me about this film are the flashback scenes or the looping scenes as I call them. When a person starts to explain something, we are taken back to a scene we’ve seen and are shown it again, just to know what the conversation refers to. It’s almost as if Carpenter was doing this to fill time needed since the film was too short or it was just lazy editing. Speaking of editing, there are a lot of wipe screens in this movie. Whomever the editor was, must’ve watched “The Phantom Menace” too many times and thought the wipe screen was a cool effect and convinced Carpenter that it should be used on his movie.
Lastly without trying to spoil anything was I thought the plan they had to destroy the ghosts was implausible While their plan succeeding in killing the physical host, how do you kill something that is in a spirit form? Someone in the team failed to bring that up. It would set up events in the ending that are all too familiar with some of Carpenter’s notable apocalyptic movies.
John Carpenter admitted in an interview a few years after this movie came out that he was emotionally burned during the making of the movie and that he lost his passion for film making. Unfortunately that spilled over into the movie. “Ghost of Mars” isn’t a bad movie at all. It’s a decent B-Movie, but you can tell that the emotional drainage spilled over into the movie. It really affected the story, the acting, the sets, editing, etc. Luckily there’s enough action, special effects and humor to keep you from falling asleep. It’s a shame that this was the movie that put Carpenter into hibernation not wanting to make movies again. Although he has reemerged, I hope he can provide me and all his loyal fans with one big memorable movie that will cement his already immortal legacy in film.
- The original script was intended for the third movie in the Snake Plisskin series, “Escape From Earth” with Kurt Russell reprising his role as Plisskin. Due to the box office failure of “Escape From LA” in 1996, the movie was rejected and Carpenter rewrote the script and changed the title to “Ghosts of Mars”.
- The prosthetics that the main bad guy wears were rather too large for his mouth and resulted in most of the “ghost-speak” having only the “a” vowel sound.
- Much of the location shooting was done on a gypsum mine near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The gypsum, which is almost pure white, was sprayed with a biodegradable red food dye to give the appearance of a Martian landscape.
- Natasha Henstridge replaced Courtney Love (the original choice) at the last minute. Love left the project after her boyfriend’s ex-wife ran over her foot in her car while she was in training for the picture. Michelle Yeoh, Franka Potente and Famke Janssen were briefly considered. Henstridge was suggested by her then-boyfriend Liam Waite, and was able to join the cast just a week before production began. The actress found the experience to be very harrowing, due to the heavily physical nature of her role and the difficult working conditions.
- Jason Statham was originally hired to play James “Desolation” Williams, but was replaced by Ice Cube for star power.
- In a 2006 interview, Ice Cube nominated this as the worst movie he had appeared in, calling it “unwatchable in many ways. John Carpenter really let us down with the special effects on that one – it looked like something out of a film from 1979”.
- Production had to shut down for a week when Natasha Henstridge fell ill due to extreme exhaustion (she had just done two other films back-to-back before joining the production at the last moment).
- John Carpenter revealed that he had become burnt out after he had made this film and made the decision of leaving Hollywood for good. It would not be until nine years later that he made a full feature film, which was The Ward (2010).