By the time the Millennium rolled around, John Carpenter had gone from a ferocious vital genre voice who always seemed tantalisingly ahead of his time to a filmmaker who was disappointingly behind the curve and while his later output were competently made and entertaining in a schlocky kind of way, it was evident that the master has lost his touch.
Never was this more evident than Ghosts Of Mars, a grungy sci-fi horror that saw a cadre of B-list, cult actors being bothered by a cabal of feral, mutants on the titular red planet that emerged as a surprisingly muddled shoot ’em up which all but finished off what little patience the legendary director had with filmmaking.
But is it really that bad, or does this derided little bullet-fest have some hidden layers lurking beneath its dusty exterior? Short answer: both.
It’s the future and the vast majority of Mars has been terraformed and thus features a network of small outposts that are connected by train lines to the capital city of Chryse. It’s here that we’re introduced to a worse for wear looking Mars Police Officer Lt. Melanie Ballard who is explaining to her superiors what went wrong with a clusterfuck of a mission at a beleaguered mining outpost named Shining Canyon.
Via extensive (and I do mean extensive) flashbacks, we find out that Melanie and her team of leather clad teammates are there to pick up notorious criminal Desolation Williams, but instead find the whole town eerily deserted save for a row of heads on pikes on a nearby ridge.
Through various survivors, each armed with flashbacks of of their own (this film’s a veritable flashback jackpot) the law enforcers eventually piece together that the miners opened a chamber that released the spirits of the native Martians who dwelt here before who then proceeded to possesses any human they can find in order to turn them into a feral, self-mutilating army who very much want to violently take their planet back.
However, simply shooting any deranged, Martian-addled maniac that comes their way isn’t going to be that helpful, not when the alien ghost simply leaves the ravaged body after death and floats off to find another one.
Having to maintain a shaky truce with Desolation Jones and his crew in order to survive, Melanie also has to try and keep her raging drug habit under control as the survivors are rapidly (and bloodily) picked off with every subsequent raid.
We know Melanie makes it out with all of her limbs still attached, but how many others managed to make it out of Shining Canyon after the repeating assaults by the fearsome Martian chief, Big Daddy Mars. No seriously, that’s what he’s actually called in the credits.
I actually actively dislike talking shit about my favorite directors – especially Carpenter – but to ignore the gradual downward spiral of his later career is somewhat tough to ignore. However, with Ghosts Of Mars – a movie that feels every inch like a DLC pack for a video game about a decade before such things properly existed – Carpenter’s usually steady hand is so out of whack that at times you feel like the director might actually making a parody of his own movies, upping the nonsensical toughguy dialogue to a ludicrous degree and launching the anti-establishment cynicism through the fucking roof to give us a cartoonish take of a sci-fi melding of Escape From New York and Assault On Precinct 13. However, soon it sinks in that Carpenter isn’t actually taking the piss and you begin to realise that his remarkable storytelling gifts seems to have all but deserted him as the entire framework of the plot is essentially a flashback as Melanie explains everything to her superiors, but this then quickly collapses into a mess of flashbacks that contains flashbacks within flashbacks that hits you as rapidly as machine gun fire. Matters certainly aren’t helped by the fact that the editor is ploughing through his work like he’s imbibed a herculean dose of peyote, using wipes, multiple dissolves and alternate angles until you’re begging for the movie simply to tell a linear story and just get to the fucking good stuff. You may think I’m being too harsh, but I kid you not, one character actually has a flashback of something that barely happened two minutes ago.
Elsewhere, all the actors give the same, flaring nostril/clenched jaw toughguy performances that suggests that they’re all desperately trying to hold in farts (Natasha Henstridge is obviously trying extra hard), but they’re a pulpy, dependable group that sees and early, post Lock, Stock and pre-bald performance by Jason Statham. However, while the cast (which also includes the noticably random line up of Pam Grier, Clea Duvall, Joanna Cassidy and Robert Carradine) have read the brief and are acting accordingly, lead Ice Cube decides to attack his role by bravely choosing to avoid acting at all costs, instead angrily delivering all of his lines like he’s still recording a B-side for NWA.
Add to this some weirdly cheap looking sets (an actual gypsum mine dyed red) and some shockingly bad visual effects and you end up with a movie that plays like a mid-level Resident Evil movie despite being directed by one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation.
And yet, this is Carpenter and despite its many faults, it’s still watchable on a purely “bang bang” level despite the fact that if you push past the leaden dialogue (“Don’t you believe in anything?”, “I believe in staying alive.”), cheap effects and muddy storytelling, there’s some interesting things going on.
For a start, the martians themselves may be lead by a possesed alpha male who looks like Alice Cooper scored a contract to wrestle with the WWE and who’s native tongue sounds like someone struggling to enunciate through false teeth, but they seem to be quite influential, especially compared to the Reavers from Joss Whedon’s space western Firefly or the zombie hierarchy from Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead (in fact both Big Daddy Mars and Zeus were both played by the same actor!). There’s also a neat yet subtle spot of world building that sees Mars run by matriarchal cartels which seem to be aiming for a Paul Verhoven-esque take on a future where women are just as equal to men, but it hasn’t actually made the world a less corrupt place. Watch as Grier’s lesbian Commander makes a sexual pass at Henstridge, suggesting there’s a promotion in it for her or the female Mars high command treating the news of invading ghost Martians with all the distain that a male would. There’s also that blatant whiff of a western floating by on the Martian breeze and you could even argue that the use of the animalistic martian hosts could be an elbow in the ribs at John Ford’s problematic use of Native Americans as mindless savages – but maybe that’s a stretch.
Yes, the action is nice and chaotic (I could watch the martians slice chunks off victims all day with their bandsaw throwing discs) and the levels of tongue in cheek machismo is off the scale, but there’s no escaping that the days of Carpenter’s slick, low budget social commentary had all but vanished… like a ghost.