An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · August 24, 2001, 7:19 PM EDT
Ghosts of Mars

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 24, 2001, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Take the basic situation from Assault on Precinct 13, add a helping of The Thing, throw in a pinch of Escape from New York and you’ve got—well, ingredients from three of John Carpenter’s best-loved films, to be sure. But you’ve also got the recipe for Ghosts of Mars, which this longtime Carpenter fan is sad to say is easily the director’s weakest film yet. (Yes, including Village of the Damned, which despite being a remake still felt fresher in moments than this movie does.)

It’s hard to know exactly how this one went so wrong, but a good place to start would be with its flashback structure. The story is bracketed by scenes of Mars police officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) being interrogated before a tribunal, telling of how she came to be the only survivor of an ill-fated mission—and killing any suspense regarding the other characters’ fates. A more pivotal problem is that the long central flashback is punctuated by flashbacks of its own, and they even get three deep at points. Carpenter’s movies have always been distinguished by their inexorable narrative tension, a sense of rising action and mounting dread—which is dashed by this movie’s jumping all over the temporal map. (Oh, and there’s one more problem with the tribunal bit that the director couldn’t have anticipated: With its circular design, and presided over by a starchy middle-aged woman, it way too readily brings to mind The Weakest Link.)

The opening shots of a train trundling through barren, red-tinged Martian settings set up the right desolate atmosphere, but Carpenter and Larry Sulkis’ script soon descends into a low-octane mix of overly familiar plotting and thinly drawn characters. There’s no reason the Assault template couldn’t have worked in an outer-space setting (it served just fine in last year’s superior Pitch Black), but there are few surprises as the movie’s cops and cons are forced to band together against colonists possessed by the spirits of ancient Martian warriors. The dialogue is often hokey and sometimes worse; at one point during the climactic action, someone actually says, “If we blew up the nuclear power station, what would happen? There would be a big explosion, right?”

Carpenter has often demonstrated a gift for swiftly but decisively sketched characters, but it fails him here. As felon Desolation Williams, with whom Ballard must form an uneasy alliance, Ice Cube is given little to do but spout attitude and I’m-only-in-this-for-me tough-guy dialogue. Equally underserved are female leads Henstridge, Pam Grier and Clea DuVall; we’re told a matriarchy rules on Mars, but all that boils down to is demonstrations that women can be just as tough and manipulative as men are. (And no movie that purports to celebrate bad-ass ladies should dispatch Grier as quickly as this one does.) There’s a tantalizing suggestion that the male-dominated spectral warriors—whose leader, after all, is called “Big Daddy” in the credits, if not the movie itself—have risen up as some sort of primordial response to the new female-centric order, but that goes completely unexplored.

All that’s left is a series of action scenes that are surprisingly listless coming from Carpenter (who barely pauses to acknowledge the deaths of key characters once they start dropping), and low-tech production design that, while no doubt reflecting what a real Mars settlement might look like, has become wearily familiar by this point in sci-fi film history. After Mission to Mars and Red Planet, this one puts the final nail in the coffin of movies set on the fourth rock from the sun; no doubt Carpenter will find fresher territory to mine his next time out.