Ghosts of Mars (2001) – Directed by John Carpenter – Starring Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea DuVall, and Joanna Cassidy.
Look, I have a lot of love for John Carpenter. I think his passion for film is every bit as strong as any other American cinematic auteur, and there’s so much passion in the way he makes movies that I can overlook a lot of the lack of refinement.
GHOSTS OF MARS puts that to the test.
This is a movie that was released in 2001 – and not because it was found in a vault with leftover films from the 1970s. But that’s what it looks like, with special effects that look decidedly old school. Maybe that was the intent or maybe that’s all they had in the budget, but for the first time in his career, Carpenter’s work feels a bit too anachronistic to overcome.
If the story, the dialogue, and the acting were exceptional, of course, I could get past the weak model work, but they’re all lacking, and for all of GHOSTS looking like a movie 20 years older than it actually is, it’s that failure of story, of dialogue, and of acting that sinks this film.
The plot is simple enough – Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is a member of a police unit assigned to pick up prisoner Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). The team includes leader Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), new addition Nathan Jericho (Jason Statham), and two younger officers: Kincaid and Descanso (Clea Duvall and Liam White). They get into a train to head on out to the mining town prison where Williams is being held. When they arrive, the town is deserted except for a few deranged miners and some prisoners. It turns out the miners have been infected with a red cloud of badness full of disembodied spirits.
Williams’ crew tricks Jericho into letting them inside the prison, where they turn on the cops to let Williams out, except that Ballard locks them all up, which leads to Williams and Ballard cutting a deal. Then the cops and robbers team up to kill the possessed miners, who are more than happy to try and kill them back.
If you just talk it out, the story seems perfectly suitable, but for some reason Carpenter has decided to clunk up his film with all manner of flashbacks. The movie opens at the end of this mining colony adventure, as Ballard is the only person on the returning train. She’s called in for questioning and then tells us the inquisition panel her story. Which is fine, except that when we get into the story, the people inside it give us more flashbacks and it just gets too repetitive. It bogs the film down. Case in point – when the cops arrive at the mining colony, the team splits up. We stick with Ballard and Jericho and then later when they reconnect with Descanso, he relates what happened to him and we see it through a flashback.
Why? What’s wrong with following along with two subplots at the same time? Why get all of one, and then get all of the other one, when the two events were happening concurrently?
The characters are a problem, too, a condition that’s not helped by the acting. Statham is a decent enough actor, but Jericho is a horrid character, more interested in trying to get laid than anything else, even in the middle of a mission. Ice Cube is fine playing the sneering bad ass, but we’re told that Williams is this ultimate bad ass and then we never see it. Is Carpenter engaging in a critique of the Age of Hyperbole that we’re living in, or is it just a stupidly conceived character?
It’s the latter, I’m guessing.
The biggest problem is Henstridge’s Ballard, however. Cube at least has some real charisma to help him power through this role and overcome the script’s deficiencies, but Henstridge is a weak actress playing a weak character. That Ballard says stupid things is on Carpenter; that Henstridge delivers most of her lines as if she memorized them 10 minutes before the performance is on her. It’s a completely wooden performance in a film that’s desperately crying out for a charismatic lead. Maybe it wouldn’t have ultimately made a huge difference in the film, but if Cube and Henstridge switched roles, I think we would’ve seen an improvement.
There’s just so little chemistry anywhere in GHOSTS OF MARS that it makes for a hard watch. Now, there’s plenty of killing and action, so if you like post-apocalyptic movies, GHOSTS OF MARS will probably do the trick as a way to spend 90 minutes of your life and not feel totally cheated. (Well, it will probably do half the trick, but you get the meaning.) It’s not a horrible movie, but it’s certainly not a good one. Carpenter didn’t deserve to disappear for an entire decade (coming back with 2011′s The Ward) but he needs stronger material than GHOSTS to allow his strengths as a director to really come through.