Get your ass off Mars! Ghosts of Mars @ 20
2021 marks the anniversaries of four films directed by the Maestro himself, John Carpenter. What makes it more interesting, is how they are relate to each other, be it self-homages, sequels, or spiritual successors. 20 years ago, one from Carp's "Quadrilogy " debuted with a less than favorable reception but still an entertaining entry from The Horror Master.
In 2001's Ghosts of Mars, Man has finally reached beyond the stars, the mysterious Red Planet, Mars is (finally) inhabited by the mining colony, and the air is breathable thanks to terraforming. But all does not seem well, as the Martian occupants are not happy with Gentrification. Parts of the colony has been possessed and in turn, causing a massacre spree throughout the city with well over 90 percent were slaughtered and a criminal who goes by the name of James "Desolation" Williams is blamed for the mass murders and the Martian Police Force has been dispatched to take him in, but it's not that simple. Already the premise of this movie sounds crazy as fuck, especially when you have Ice Cube as a Snake Plissken archetype? Pam Grier? Jason Statham and that actress from the sci-fi horror film Species?
So, what in the hell went wrong?
The script was originally written as a sequel to Escape from New York (1981) and Escape from L.A. (1996), with the character Snake Plissken as the prisoner, but Paramount wouldn't back it as such due to the financial and critical failure of EFLA. Plissken was therefore rewritten as Desolation Williams. As it looks, I would codify Ghosts of Mars akin to a Science Fiction take on Assault on Precinct 13 than another Escape film, but it’s an amalgamation of both, thanks to the nods and references here and there.
As for the main story, its retold through the testimony of Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) of the Mars Police Force, who was found unconscious and handcuffed to the berth of an incoming train. Prior to current events, via a series of flashbacks, Melanie is dispatched to a remote mining outpost to retrieve and transport prisoner James 'Desolation' Williams (Ice Cube). When reaching their destination within the isolated mining town, Ballard & her "Martian Police Squad " discover that all the people are either missing or possessed by a mysterious entity that cannot be seen. Desolation Williams is one of the few remaining survivors, but can they fight their way out of a town filled with barbaric tribes of the Red Planet?
On its surface, Ghosts of Mars is seen as a Sci Fi horror flick, but it’s also a suspense thriller thanks to the unraveling of the ravaged Mining town told from past events that were witnessed by our Soul survivor protagonist. And since Carpenter is a huge fan of Westerns, this movie adapts the genre as well, when just but looking at the set pieces, tone, and aesthetics. In fact, there were standoff scenarios that could have easily been mistaken as an homage to Rio Bravo, one of Carpenter’s favorite films. Overall, as with Assault on Precinct 13, it’s a B Movie Survival Horror where our heroes, are faced against overwhelming odds. While the pacing and action scenes work well, my major gripes are the constant jump scares, way too many flashbacks and fade transitions that doesn't compliment the narrative. Also, the introduction of Desolation Williams, would have worked better had Sgt. Melanie and Jericho approached his sell from a 3rd person perspective where the camera views Williams from behind instead of on front. It takes away the mystique of the character's introduction. But that's probably as far as it goes since I didn’t expect too much from this, well then again, that ending...!😬
Although “Ghosts” is considered Jason Stratham's first action role, his Sgt Jericho is more restricted to an Alpha Male #MeToo poster boy, who comes very arrogant whenever he’s not coming onto Melanie via tenacious sexual advances, but Jericho wasn't the only one trying to make “smooth moves”. There’s Commander Helena Braddock played by Pam Grier whose role happens to be that of a Lesbian this time. It seems like Helena also had her eye on Melanie, prior to losing her head!
"Ghosts" has a few clever callbacks like Helena yelling "Who goes there?" which of course is a nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing, originally based on Joseph Campbell's novel "Who goes there ".
Originally Stratham was set to star as Desolation Williams, however, the Studio opted for a big name like Ice Cube instead and in some ways, it worked whenever Cube was basically channeling his NWA image street bravado with distrust of authority especially when it comes to Police officers. So, his casting in lieu of Stratham was appropriate. Desolation Williams may be coined as a Snake Plissken knockoff, as the similarities between the two Antiheroes, are obvious, both are cynical, are career criminals, enabled a code of honor and even have similar outfits. That said, Cube's Desolation, had plenty of angst, and no fucks given to the point of calling Clea Duvall’s character who is ambiguously Braddock’s lover, a "Dyke" in the fictional era of this progressive matriarchal society, where more Women have higher positions within authority.
“Ghosts” main baddy, Big Daddy Mars is the leader of the Martian cult who for the most part, grunts and yells while delivering his motivational speech to the horde, in "Martian dialogue" of course, and while he's nothing special, I would rate him over the annoying "Adam" from Zac Snyder's Army of the Dead. Just saying!
As the movie's plot unfolds, we are given a brief explanation of how the Martians contaminated the miner colony. It’s almost akin to a cautionary meta whether it’s the opening of Pandoras Box or Colonialism. At least, that's what I gathered from the story. The soundtrack courtesy of John Carpenter, Buckethead and Thrash Metal legends, Anthrax resulting in an unorthodox yet very energetic score packing a punch while our heroes are punching, kicking, and blasting Martians.
But all is not so serious in "Ghosts" as during the dour story, there were hilarious comedic breaks, like when Williams reunites with his "compadres" Melanie turns the tide and have them all behind bars. Or when one of Williams' "Comprendes" Dos, high from some drug inhaler, accidentally cuts off his thumb when trying to impress Ashookay (Wanda DeJesus)
So, after one big skirmish near the outpost, you would think that all is good, when looking at your watch assuming its finally over as the group manages to escape the Daddy Mars when hopping aboard the train, but "nooooooo”, Melanie suggests that they return to blow up the Martians malcontents, by setting off the outpost's nuclear reactor which ended up as a suicide mission. This is what happens when you take suggestions from a drugged-out Police Officer!
And despite your usual victorious outcome, all is in vain as soon as the film wraps up with an abrupt ending, indicative of Carpenter possibly rushing to meet the film's production schedule, if not running out of creative juice. I can recall all the boos and sighs from the audience when Cube broke the fourth wall, giving us a wink before the credits rolled. "The End."
That was by any means, not a good way to close out Ghosts of Mars, which at times feels more like some Universal Studios theme attraction than a contemporary sci fi horror movie. It's schlock and camp as Carpenter originally intended it to be however, I can’t help but to think that there really could have been great potential here. As it stands, John Carpenter's first and last film of the aughts, is a dumbed down popcorn flick. However, like Assault on Precinct 13's Napoleon Wilson, it has "moments".
Despite some of the generic acting, and negative reception, the entourage's cast and dialog are still superior to its "spiritual successor " 2002's Resident Evil which in several ways borrowed from Ghosts of Mars then again, I can accuse Carpenter of borrowing from 1990’s Total Recall, but It isn’t really saying much. 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. I'm a big fan of John Carpenter and the only reason I did it was because John Carpenter directed it, but they really didn't have the money to pull the special effects off."
After the disappointing box office and critical failure from "Ghosts", John Carpenter decided to leave Hollywood for good until he had a change of heart 10 years later when he made another full feature film, The Ward. As of this writing, Ghosts of Mars despite its negative reception has amassed a cult following thanks to its lengthy combat sequences and Nu Metal soundtrack.
John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars is available to watch on Starz