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Ghosts of Mars   B-

Screen Gems

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: Larry Sulkis, John Carpenter
Cast: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea Duvall, Joanna Cassidy, Jericho Butler, Richard Cetrone.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's something strangely pure about Ghosts of Mars. Its B-movie roots are cleaner than most summer films. It doesn't want to be an event picture and it doesn't hide its pulpy style behind big production values. It loves being quick and dirty, and it wants you to love it too. That honesty can be hard to resist, even when the film itself starts to falter. It's also hard to resist the sly energy of director John Carpenter, whose name above the title is more than just an ego affectation. Good or bad, his films reflect his unique personal style in the truest auteurial sense. Ghosts of Mars can't compete with his very best work, but fans will find more than enough signature flourishes to keep them happy.

Though set on a terraformed Red Planet in the year 1276, this film bears all the trappings of a classic western. Mars has become a new frontier, dominated by mining towns, ore trains, and cranky settlers. A squad of police is dispatched to a distant outpost to pick up notorious outlaw Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). They arrive to find the town abandoned, with only the prisoners in jail left alive. Soon enough, they learn the truth: the town has been taken over by alien ghosts -- insubstantial phantoms of the planet's original inhabitants. Sporting Marilyn Manson makeup and some really icky body piercings, they soon make their angry presence known by hacking apart several supporting players. It's up to Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) to join forces with Desolation and save everyone's collective hides.

A lot of thought went into setting up this scenario, from Mars's female-dominated social structure to the rusty hues of Desolation's fatigues. It becomes frustrating at times, because we want to see such elements better developed, but that's not really the point. The action scenes have a brisk pace, and the visual style packs a lot of punch with some admittedly old-fashioned techniques. The western atmosphere translates very well to the new setting (somebody needs to get Carpenter a classic oater to direct), and provides a nice layer of subtext to an otherwise straightforward shoot-'em-up. A few silly plot hooks pop up every now and again, but it's easy to dismiss them with a knowing wink (the director certainly does).

Carpenter has particular fun playing with flashbacks -- sometimes with less-than-stellar results. Ghosts of Mars unfolds as Ballard relates the events to her superior, and her recollection is peppered with further flashbacks from other characters. At one point, we actually get a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, and while it's all clearly a joke, it also jars the pacing tremendously. That sort of double-edged payoff keeps Ghosts of Mars from rising higher than it might.

The cast is a similarly mixed bag. Though Henstridge has a nice on-screen presence, she lacks the steel her role requires. Joanna Cassidy and Pam Grier are both sorely underused, while David Statham (playing one of Henstridge's men) scores more with his cockney accent than his fit-the-plot character traits. The real winner is Ice Cube, who plays Desolation with the right amount of grit and hostility. Carpenter has a deep affinity for iconoclasts, and his sympathies clearly lie with the smart, ruthless criminal. Cube is canny enough to make the most of his director's favor.

At times, Ghosts of Mars plays like a highlight reel of Carpenter's other films: elements of The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, and others are liberally spread across the landscape. It often suffers from unfavorable comparison, but still has enough energy to occupy our attention. Its lack of pretension and lean plot allow us to shrug off failings that would sink a more bloated picture. Pulp comes in all flavors, but only the most honest really succeed. Ghosts of Mars has honesty, it has flash, and it has a bunch of big scary zombies going on a rampage. Here in mid-August, surrounded by the carcasses of "event" films, you can't ask for much more.

Review published 08.27.2001.

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