Revisiting the Reviled — The Ineffectual ‘Ghosts of Mars’ Haunts the Legacy of John Carpenter

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, John Carpenter was making genre films without equal. From Assault on Precinct 13 to They Live, practically every film Carpenter made in that timespan has endured as a genre classic. But the ‘90s weren’t kind to John Carpenter. Starting with Memoirs of the Invisible Man, Carpenter helmed a string of flops, though some of them weren’t quite bad. In the ‘00s, Carpenter would make only one feature film – 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. The film would be a massive flop and a dreadful experience for most involved, ultimately resulting in Carpenter’s exile from a medium in which he’s a legend.

Ghosts of Mars was initially written as a sequel to Escape from L.A. entitled Escape From Mars, but following that film’s underperforming box office, Carpenter and co-writer Larry Sulkis made a few minor tweaks. Before the film would go into production, Courtney Love, who was originally cast as the lead, injured her ankle, supposedly run over by her then-boyfriend, and was forced to drop out. With a tight schedule and a modest budget, Natasha Henstridge would be a last minute addition. However, nobody’s presence could prevent Ghosts of Mars from being the nadir of Carpenter’s filmography. It makes it all the tougher to watch because there are interesting ideas visible only to be obscured by some questionable storytelling choices. It’s a lot like watching a Hall of Fame ballplayer sticking around well past their prime.

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The film is a mashup of various Carpenter ideas from the past and some of his key influences as well. The film is told in a series of flashbacks, a la Rashomon, and features some elements that are reminiscent of Rio Bravo, one Carpenter’s favorite films and a key inspiration to Assault on Precinct 13. There are also elements that recall The Thing, with this ghostly presence that takes over people, and Escape From New York, with Ice Cube’s Desolation Williams just being a less interesting, rewritten Snake Plissken.

The year is 2176 and the surface of Mars is mostly terraformed for human habitation. Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Henstridge) is giving her testimony before a military tribunal. The society, it must be noted, is a matriarchal society, though it’s an interesting idea that never goes beyond the surface intrigue. We flashback as she recounts the harrowing journey of when her fellow soldiers attempted to transport the dangerous criminal Desolation Williams (Cube). While on a trip to pick up Williams for prisoner transport, Melanie and her crew, consisting of Jericho (Jason Statham), Bashira (Clea DuVall), and Helena (Pam Grier), encounter a spirit accidentally resurrected by the archeologist Dr. Arlene Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), which possesses human beings and turns them into murderous Maritians from the past. Soon, prisoner and prison guard must work together if they’re to survive.

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In most instances, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that cast that includes Jason Statham, Ice Cube, Pam Grier, and Clea DuVall would be remarkably badass, but that’s not the case with Ghosts of Mars. Everyone looks like they’re uncomfortable in their own skin. Statham gives a performance that’s mostly devoid of his signature cool badassery. Ice Cube is just being kind of angry, but not in a fun or menacing way. Both Grier and DuVall are given characters that are barely fleshed out enough to provide anything resembling a memorable moment, short of DuVall’s demise that is. While she must be extended a certain amount of leeway for her late casting in the film, Natasha Henstridge never once is convincing as any type of military or police force.

But Ghosts of Mars isn’t merely plagued with awkward, wooden performances as Carpenter does the odd storytelling conceit of having the film be a series of flashbacks, including a number of flashbacks within a flashback. Ghosts of Mars lacks the narrative efficiency that’s even found in Carpenter’s lesser films. Say what you will about Vampires, it has a much more cohesive story than Ghosts of Mars.

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The film also came at a time when computer effects were becoming more and more prevalent, and Carpenter’s use of the emerging technology underserve the film at every available turn. It certainly doesn’t help matters that his use of practical effects are quite noticeable – a number of the miniatures look like models. Ghosts of Mars has an oddly dated look, one that’s never endearing or wondrous. There is some interesting set design and makeup work, though most of the makeup work is dedicated towards making the Martians look like a murderous cult that spawned out of the KISS Army.

It’s all but impossible to watch Ghosts of Mars without feeling a tinge of sadness. Not only is it an underwhelming film by a legendary filmmaker, it has a pretty good cast and some interesting ideas yet none of them are properly utilized. But one really bad movie isn’t enough to diminish my love of John Carpenter, nor squander his legacy. If Carpenter were to be releasing a new film (an unlikely hypothetical situation), I’d be among the first in line. But the recycled ideas and uneven tone of Ghosts of Mars lends itself to the theory that it was film being helmed by a director at his rope’s end. That years of studio interference, films facing critical scorn and underperforming at the box office had taken their toll. While I miss Carpenter’s unique voice at the cinema, his exile is likely something needed for his own sanity, and you can’t fault him for that. Ghosts of Mars may be Carpenter’s worst film, but it still has a bit of personality buried within. By no means, is the film worthy of contempt, just the sad acknowledgement that it’ll probably be John Carpenter’s final action flick.

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