On the red planet, a group of cops and crims come under siege at a remote outpost.
Review by Jason Abbey
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea Duvall. Joanna Cassidy
Made during what we can now call the tail end of John Carpenter's lesser late period (basically everything from Escape to LA onwards) comes perhaps his most critically kicked around film. Spruced up on Blu-Ray it can now be reassessed. Truth be told it is not a missing classic that has been unfairly maligned, but it is kind of fun.
On a terraformed Mars that has become a matriarchal society (possibly making amends for Vampires), Police Officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) has been assigned to transport big bad Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) from a mining town to receive justice. Cube gives it his full range of chubby looking sneers in the Snake Plissken role, but still looks like a nice boy playing mean.
That said mining town has been decimated by an unknown evil should come as no surprise. That the remaining human inhabitants, both cop and criminal, will have to hold up and work together in order to survive should also point you to the idea that Carpenter is remaking Assault on Precinct 13 in sci-fi garb with just a soupcon of The Fog thrown into the mix.
What may have done for this film is Carpenter's reputation. When you have a handful of classics under your belt, everything you do is going to be expected to be a hit of the highest order, so when you do a journeyman middling piece of work it is going to get a kicking. Ghost of Mars is slapdash without a doubt; the set design and special effects look like something from the Syfy channel now and the script seems as though it was thrown together in an afternoon (the flashback structure, including flashbacks within a flashback, is not smart storytelling; it just clogs up what should be a linear battle to survive). The acting is hit and miss. Cube is just about acceptable, if a little cheesy. Henstridge makes a bland lead. Pam Grier is wasted in a blink and you’ll miss it appearance and Jason Statham as fellow cop Jericho Butler had yet to develop the cockney meatball style that has seen him become a stalwart of B-movie action.
Carpenter has also gathered together a group of axe grinders for the soundtrack, a genre of music I have no truck with, which makes this the most annoying of Carpenter's scores. Hell, even the aliens look like BDSM Clive Barker cast offs or angry looking mutant turtles, depending what form they are in.
With so much against it you can see why it wasn’t a success, but there is something that seems to be ignored in all the attacks, and that’s fun. Not for one minute is the film taking any of this seriously. You have lesbian officers trying to sex up a subordinate in a style straight out of a Roger Corman women in prison movie. You have Statham as one of the few fertile men on Mars trying to get his freak on during the middle of a supernatural alien massacre, and one of Desolation Williams' cohorts demonstrates an interesting but fatally flawed method of opening a tin of peaches.
The film also moves at a clip. In spite of the narrative structure it still manages to propel forward at pace even if the fight scenes resemble something out of an '80s music video with added gore.
Ghost of Mars is not good enough to be rehabilitated then, but it can sit alongside works like Buckaroo Banzai and Big Trouble in Little China, films that winked at the audience and played meta before nerd culture and the internet made that not only acceptable but pretty much de rigueur for film fans. It’s a film that in the end literally winks at the audience as it finishes.
You get a Carpenter and Henstridge commentary, which is mainly flirting with a few anecdotal asides, such as Statham is down to earth, Courtney Love was originally the lead and not a whole lot more. Amiable but inessential.
A lot of concept art, some making-of b-roll footage, and a recording session of the music. The main meat of the extras is the second part of the guardian lecture with Nigel Floyd (the first part appears on Powerhouse's Vampires disc) and a booklet with articles from Nick Pinkerton and Marc Shapiro. The trailer is great if only for the tag line ‘you don’t stand a ghost of a chance’, which is really not trying hard enough.
Ghosts of Mars is available on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Indicator.