John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars
DVD - Image B Sound B Extras C-
BD - Image B+ Sound A- Extras C-
starring Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham Clea Duvall
screenplay by Larry Sulkis & John Carpenter
directed by John Carpenter
by Walter Chaw An uneasy, hippified version of a cowboys and Indians shoot-'em-up, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is an exhausted shade of the once-hip director's oeuvre, baldly stealing from his Assault on Precinct 13 before partially resurrecting later works The Fog, Escape from N.Y./L.A., The Thing, and even They Live in the focus on an interracial pair hooking up to kick alien ass. It sounds like an agreeable enough concoction, especially when one considers the presence of the lovely Natasha Henstridge in a tight sweater perspiring alongside cult personalities Pam Grier, Ice Cube, and Snatch's Jason Statham, but Ghosts of Mars is a rudderless enterprise that doesn't know what it's doing and bores while doing it. The most disturbing thing about this aggressively tame production is the suspicion that the John Carpenter who used to make interesting socio-political genre films has been taken over by one of his own mindless zombie Martians.
Henstridge plays Melanie Ballard, a cop in a matriarchal Mars society (giving lie to the pop truism that women are from Venus). She's sent, as are grizzled vet Helena (Pam Grier), lascivious suitor Jericho (Statham), and green rookie Bashira (Clea DuVall), to collect gangsta supervillain Snake Plisskin--I mean, James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube)--from a red planet mining town. Told in flashback (and flashback-within-flashback within tedious shifts in point-of-view), Ghosts of Mars establishes that the bad guys have been infected with some kind of body-snatching phantom spore/dust (that does not affect everyone, I guess), that terraforming has made the atmosphere 80% breathable, and that an entirely non-existent wind is responsible for spreading the contagion.
There's some mumbo-jumbo jibber-jabber about ghosts of Mars wanting to destroy any "invaders," leading Melanie to utter, with no trace of irony, the white man's battle-cry: "It's ours now." The actual villains, all looking like extras from a Gwar video, alternate between screaming and warbling unintelligibly in an idioglossic patois, so clearly meant to be the crazed, murderous Indians of an antiquated western serial. I was actually disappointed to note the lack of a smoke-signal intrigue and a circling of a wagon train--but not as disappointed as I was to note that the bad guys are clearly meant to be the crazed, murderous Indians of an antiquated western serial.
Ghosts of Mars is a rote, clunky, enfeebled picture that starts out agreeably enough, with the intriguing suggestion of a matriarchal ruling structure and the bare inklings of yet another satiric exposition of Carpenter's stoned eco-sympathy and liberal racial outrage. The only thing that really works in the film is Carpenter's moody electronica score, which almost, but not quite, fools us into believing that something scary or suspenseful is going on. There is no attention paid to character development and even less, if that's possible, to plot coherence. Come to think of it, once the credits roll, it's difficult for one to remember how time watching Ghosts of Mars was spent at all. When the most memorable scene in your action/horror/sci-fi thriller is a brief ending shot of Henstridge in grey institutional underwear, you know you've got problems.
Usually in science-fiction films, problems arise when internal rules are violated. Ghosts of Mars, however, doesn't seem to have any rules to begin with--it's a chaotic mish-mash of ill-framed excuses for extended and dull fight scenes, most of them shot in extreme slow-motion and without any trace of the exuberance of, say, Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China and its alleyway deathmatch. Ghosts of Mars has a couple of relatively bloodless beheadings, a trio of unconvincing throat slashings, and an execution-by-hubcap that is not nearly so interesting as the fact of the hubcaps themselves being on a remote mining colony. Although I enjoyed a few of the make-up effects (particularly an extra with what appears to be knives through her cheeks), the film is unfrightening, unsuspenseful, not gory enough, and scripted by the thing that consumed John Carpenter: a moron at least twenty-five years past its prime.
by Bill Chambers For a DVD that received Columbia TriStar's coveted "Special Edition" label, Ghosts of Mars boasts of surprisingly lame supplementary material--not that the picture deserved better. (I know that the film is destined for re-evaluation and cult elevation, so let's call a spade a spade while it's still permitted.) Even the tech credits are somewhat below par: presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-frame transfers on the same side of a dual-layered platter, the image is nice but banding is noticeable and shadow detail is inconsistent. (The two versions basically have this in common.) Meanwhile, dialogue sounds crushed at times in the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and on an artistic level, I found it lacking in atmosphere--door-clanks and whatnot can be heard in the surrounds, yet we never believe that our heroes are in one of the windiest areas on Mars.
The most aggressive aspect of the mix is Carpenter's score, a brash collaboration between Anthrax, Steve Vai (he who lost a guitar duel to Ralph Macchio in Crossroads), and Buckethead (so named for the KFC bucket adorning his cranium) 'profiled' in the herky-jerky behind-the-scenes segment "Scoring Ghosts of Mars" (6 mins.). As in the other two bonus videos, "Video Diary: Red Desert Nights" (17 mins.) and "Special Effects Deconstruction" (7 mins.), the assembled footage doesn't follow any contextual line and includes neither interviews nor narration. (In the latter's case, it's just a barrage of storyboards, greenscreen backgrounds, animatics, miniatures, etc.--that's a deconstruction?) Only Carpenter's one-sided flirtatiousness in a commentary with a pregnant Henstridge manages to stir much interest, though Kurt Russell Henstridge is not, and Carpenter seems more interested in her early modelling career than in Ghosts of Mars. (Then again, who wouldn't be?) Filmographies round out this anemic disc. Originally published: November 30, 2001.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Sony brings John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars to Blu-ray in a sleek albeit slightly electronic-looking 2.40:1, 1080p presentation. Suffice it to say the transfer is intermittently noisy and generally looks like it's been subjected to a light cocktail of grain-filtering and edge-enhancement, though the anamorphic cinematography is naturally soft, with lens aberrations at times throwing the upper third of the image out of focus entirely. In the 'pros' column, the Martian terrain is back to being a pure, brilliant red that NTSC could only vaguely approximate (and even then not without its share of colour bleed), and the absence of compression artifacts proves revelatory. I've certainly seen better HD, but at least it's not the digital mush that is the standard-def alternative--and the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track represents an upgrade, too. The director's patented low-frequency thrumming is suddenly prevalent, setting a tone of dread that helps Ghosts of Mars to play like vintage Carpenter. Rear-channel activity is much more fevered if no less utilitarian; they could've really capitalized on those flying-disc weapons, which have the misfortune to arrive in the third act, when the mix itself starts to seem a little slapdash. All of the DVD's extras resurface here (the video-based ones in SD), where they're joined by previews for Resident Evil: Degeneration (1080p) and Zombie Strippers (480i and 4:3 letterbox). Originally published: March 16, 2009.