If I were to ask you to name some John Carpenter films you’d probably give me titles like Halloween, The Thing, or Big Trouble in Little China, perhaps even some of his less successful but still well regarded films like The Fog, or Escape From New York. But one that you’d probably not bring up would be Ghosts of Mars, his penultimate movie, and the last one he’d make for almost a decade. And I wouldn’t blame you for not thinking about it straight away, because it’s pretty shit. But boy is it the kind of shit that I found really enjoyable when it first came out, and that I’ve got a lot of time for.
Set in the latter half of the 22nd century, we find a Mars that has been mostly terraformed. The air on Mars is breathable now, and whilst you might occasionally need a breather mask to help with the dust and the thinner than normal atmosphere, you don’t have to don a space suit to take a stroll on the red planet. Not only that, but society has shifted away from men being in charge, and has been replaced with a matriarchy. Sounds pretty good to me. Unfortunately, on a trip to pick up a criminal from a remote outpost, things begin to go bad on Mars.
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We follow Lt Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a police officer with a secret drug addiction, who’s travelling to a mining outpost with her commanding officer, played by Pam Grier, the cocky Sergeant Butler (Jason Statham) and a couple of rookies. When they arrive at the outpost to collect the wanted criminal James ‘Desolation’ Williams (Ice Cube) they find the outpost deserted, and signs of something awful having happened. Williams is still in his cell, along with a motley collection of other prisoners, but everyone else has vanished.
The team soon discover that the population of the town have been taken over by a strange force, spirits of the long dead martian race that cause their hosts to self mutilate, and kill anything that isn’t one of them. When the Commander is killed it’s down to Ballard to take over, teaming up with Williams and his crew to try and find a way of escaping the town and killing the martian ghosts once and for all.
Ghosts of Mars is a silly film. The entire concept, of an archaeological dig unearthing the buried ghosts of aliens that possess people and turn them into crazed killers is wild to say the least, and whilst there is the basis for a pretty cool horror story of never knowing who might be harbouring one of these ghosts, or that every possessed you kill unleashes another spirit into the air ready to take you over, this never really gets played upon with this movie. Instead, it’s a film of style over substance, and one where John Carpenter seems to be enjoying making a sci-fi story where people get to dress cool and shoot things up with shiny guns.
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And I think that because of this attitude, because it’s not trying to take itself very seriously or trying to do anything spectacular, it can be a lot of fun. It has a cockiness to itself that doesn’t feel earned, but you have to smile at. It’s like the film took its approach from the character Jack Burton. The characters aren’t particularly well developed, they all approach things as if they’re the biggest and baddest in the room with a cheesy one-liner and smile. The costumes are designed for their look over any real kind of functionality, especially the martian police; and the weapons are either big shiny guns, or something thrown together in the midst of battle. It’s silly, but I enjoy watching this film.
The cast are, on the whole, are really good too, and well placed in their roles. Henstridge became famous through her role in Species, so was a recognisable face for horror and sci-fi fans, and her recent foray into comedy is perfect for the silly tone of this movie. Equally, Ice Cube is a great foil for her, and the two of them have pretty good chemistry, and he proves to be a charming and funny criminal with a heart. Statham had had success with his work with Guy Ritchie, but hadn’t yet hit it big as a Hollywood action hero, but this film shows that he’s got the ability to shoot some guns and deliver some cheesy dialogue. Even the supporting cast are made up of competent character actors who manage to make what are little more than extras feel charming and enjoyable.
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Ghosts of Mars is a silly, cheesy film that is never going to be held up as one of Carpenter’s best. It’s not going to wow anyone with its story, with its dialogue that feels like its two decades late, and it’s not going to impress with its effects that are a bit janky at times. But if you like 80’s action films that don’t take themselves very seriously this will probably keep you entertained. It might not be perfect, but it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half.
Ghosts of Mars was released in the UK on 30th November 2001.