A Ghostly Actioner
Mars, 2176. Presumably due to overpopulation, Earth has begun the colonization of the red planet. With "terraformation" almost complete, Mars, a matriarchal society, will soon become the new home of Earthlings who can no longer live on their native planet. But what of Mars's former inhabitants? Freed after being locked up for many years, they are still not happy with the human invaders laying claim to a planet that is rightfully theirs.
If the above summary sounds a bit familiar, it should. Aside from a minor plot detail tweaked here and there, the basic plot structure for director John Carpenter's new sci-fi thriller Ghosts of Mars is almost exactly the same as his classic '80s actioner Escape From New York, which introduced a future society in which New York City had become one huge maximum security prison. In fact, Ghosts of Mars appears to be created from the remains of a number of previous Carpenter flicks. This film combines elements of Escape From New York, The Thing, Vampires, Prince of Darkness, and the feature that put Carpenter on the filmmaking map, Assault on Precinct 13. But hold on, weren't some of these good movies? Isn't "guns + monsters = bloody carnage" a successful equation? If you answered no to those two questions, then Ghosts of Mars is not the movie for you. "Yes" answers indicate you'll probably enjoy Carpenter's latest blood-soaked, B-movie opus.
A train arrives in major Martian city Chryse on autopilot, its lone passenger Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a cop with a horrifying tale to tell. She was one of a team of Martian police officers assigned to pick up notorious murderer James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) from a jail in the mining town of Shining Canon and bring him back to stand trial in Chryse. Oddly, though, once the police arrive in Shining Canyon, there's not a soul about, except for the prisoners, still locked up in jail. Further investigation uncovers a trail of bodies decapitated and hung from the ceiling -- Desolation's calling card, although he's still shackled and in his cell. But after about fifteen flashbacks and a confession or two, Ballard and the other officers learn that a doctor (Joanna Cassidy) accidentally unleashed an evil force comprised of the former inhabitants of Mars, and the angry spirits went along possessing miners until all of Shining Canyon was taken over. Once the Martian warriors begin their attack upon the small band of unpossessed humans, the cops and the crooks are forced to team up, combining their forces to prevent the Martian menace and find a way to get home alive.
Let's face the facts here, people: the John Carpenter who directed suspenseful masterpieces like Halloween, The Thing, and Assault on Precinct 13 is no more. He has been replaced by a glossy, less-brilliant automaton droid, a filmmaker specializing in cheesy, over-the-top gorefests. Okay, this newer Carpenter isn't bad at times. He makes underrated flicks like Escape From L.A. and In the Mouth of Madness and, yes, Ghosts of Mars. I'm glad to see his latest film is a winner. Returning to his low-budget roots, Carpenter gives the Martian landscape an eerie aura, a dingy mood hanging about that immediately tells you this is not a good place to be at night. Some of the sets are cheap, the effects overly cheesy (especially that really fake-looking train), and the Martian make-up ridiculous (once possessed, apparently one transforms into a refugee from a Marilyn Manson concert), but so what? Carpenter knows most of the stuff in his movies has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is the whole point of enjoying one of his films: allowing a hefty suspension of disbelief to take place as you stare up at the screen and listen to Carpenter's excellent electronic scores playing over the beginning credits. Ghosts of Mars is all about blood, guts, blowing things up, and showing that in the future, Earth will experience a surge in really tough chicks.
Because cast members spend most of their time huddled together and either running from or shooting at Martian baddies, the screenplay doesn't allow much development time for the story or the characters. Like Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter, along with co-screenwriter Larry Sulkis, plunks the characters into a dangerous situation, and the rest of the film is comprised of their attempts to get out of it. But Carpenter's story-telling mainly stays on target, although there are countless instances where he goes trigger-happy on incorporating flashbacks to explain everything (imagine this: a flashback within a flashback within a flashback...within a flashback). Henstridge (Species) gives a well-balanced performance as the story's locked-and-loaded heroine, and fortunately, the script provides her character with some of the flick's best moments, such as when Melanie finds herself possessed and saved by a drug stash she keeps around her neck. Ice Cube, who can be both very good (Three Kings) and very bad (Next Friday), finds a middle ground and delivers an "OK" performance as the villain-turned-protagonist. Perhaps the character sputters out too much corny dialogue ("I ain't goin' back!" and "Time to stay alive!"), but when the time is right, the man can do a bad guy act with sharp expertise. Statham, Clea DuVall, and Pam Grier have their small moments as Melanie's teammates, Cassidy is a tad uneven as the person responsible for releasing the Martian ghosts, and Richard Cetrone (even without a single line of English dialogue) is fierce and fearsome as the film's main baddie, credited at the end with the ultra-cool moniker "Big Daddy Mars."
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars may have corny effects, a tiresome screenplay, and an odd method of storytelling, but on the plus side, Carpenter keeps a keen eye on the consistency of the film's horror, action, and sci-fi elements. Expect something like They Live, with wisecracks being tossed around every five minutes and limbs being severed every two minutes. It's definitely not Starman.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Screen Gems and rated "R" for strong violence/gore, language and some drug content.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.