Filmmaker John Carpenter isn’t just a respected genre director. He’s the screenwriter, producer, director and musician behind some of the greatest science fiction, horror and action films ever made, including Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing and Escape From New York. Even his films that weren’t big hits at the time, such as Starman, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live, have since been embraced as cult gems.
Ghosts Of Mars, meanwhile, came out in 2001, a point in Carpenter’s career where he admitted that he’d “burned out” creatively. A sci-fi horror mash-up about cops and criminals under siege from an army of Martian-possessed people, it sounded on paper like it should have everything going for it – which we’ll cover very soon – but somehow, none of it gelled into a satisfying whole. The movie made only half of its $14million budget back at the box office, and it marked Carpenter’s temporary retirement from feature filmmaking.
But while Ghosts Of Mars is one of Carpenter’s lesser films, critically and financially (its aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes is 21%, if that’s any indication), that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of remarkable things to write about this oft-maligned film.
10. The cast is full of geektastic actors
As Ghosts Of Mars opens, and we learn that Red Planet has been terraformed by the 22nd century, the credits also reveal an admiral cast of cult favourites. There’s Pam Grier (Coffy, Jackie Brown) as a tough commander named Braddock, Clea DuVall (The Faculty, Argo) as a communications expert, Ice Cube as a convict named Desolation Williams, Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner) as a scientist called Whitlock, and one Jason Statham as a tough soldier named Jericho.
The star of the movie, though, is Natasha Henstridge (Species, Maximum Risk) as Lieutenant Melanie Ballard. She leads an expedition to a remote mining outpost called Shining Canyon to take captured criminal Desolation Williams from a jail and back to justice. Unfortunately, Ballard, flanked by Grier’s Braddock and Statham’s Jericho, discovers the once bustling outpost has become a silent ghost town. And on closer inspection, they also find out that Desolation might not be the most deadly entity still waiting for them there…
If the roster of actors above sounds eclectic, then bear in mind that it could have been even more unusual if the casting had gone to plan. Carpenter had originally intended rock musician Courtney Love to star as Ballard, but she had to bow out when her foot was run over by the ex-wife of her then-boyfriend.
Love probably would have been quite good in the role, given that she’d turned in some great performances at the time in films like The People Vs Larry Flint and Man On The Moon; certainly, her rock-and-roll image would have been a logical fit with Ghosts Of Mars’ rough, heavy-metal aesthetic. Unfortunately, an interfering Volvo made that impossible, and so Henstridge it was.
9. It was shot in a New Mexico quarry
Like so many science fiction films and TV shows, Ghosts Of Mars resorted to some rather lo-fi means of recreating the look of an alien planet. In this case, a gypsum mine on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico were pressed into service as Mars. The problem, though, was that the natural cover of the mine’s rocks didn’t look especially Martian, so gallons of food colouring had to be used to stain them red.
Although some of the efforts to convince us that we’re looking at a settlement on Mars aren’t bad – some of the interior sets are quite good, as are the miniature effects used to create an armoured Martian train – it has to be said that the exterior shots really do look like they’ve been shot in the middle of a terrestrial colony at night. Fortunately, the landscape will soon be covered in far too many severed limbs to notice too much.
8. It’s a compendium of John Carpenter’s favourite things
When you analyse Ghosts Of Mars element by element, it’s a bit of a shame it didn’t come off as a better enterprise than it did. For one thing, it’s full of all the pet things that Carpenter appeared to enjoy exploring in his other movies – in fact, it almost reads like a compression of all his earlier films into a single story.
Its Western underpinnings and siege finale are straight out of Assault On Precinct 13, as are its wise-talking convicts and tough cops. Its themes of bodily invasion and possession bear echoes of The Thing. Even its army of demon-possessed miners has a precedent somewhere else, since they look vaguely like the creepy marauders in Prince Of Darkness, right down to their leader, whose long hair, pale skin and black eye make-up recall the look of Alice Cooper’s cameo in that earlier film.
Somehow, though, Carpenter never quite gets a rein on all of this stuff in the way he did in those earlier movies. The numerous scenes of gunplay lack the intensity and impact of Assault, and the sense of horror is undercut by a distractingly noisy metal soundtrack, which includes wailing guitar contributions from such fret-worrying gods as Steve Vai, and Robin Finck.
Between all these squalling rock riffs, and its army of demon-possessed humans, all piercings, self-administered cuts, long hair and leather, Ghosts Of Mars often resembles a riot at a Judas Priest gig rather than a sci-fi action film.
7. Loads and loads of people are decapitated
We later learn that scientific prodding at some ancient burial sites have disturbed the spirits of long-dead Martians, and that they’re now using human bodies as hosts. These demon-possessed humans are now hell-bent on exterminating the rest of the settlers on Mars, who they see as invaders. For some reason, they seem to take great pleasure in decapitating and lopping the arms and legs off everyone they see, either with improvised swords or these patented frisbee-type things they’ve invaded.
Poor old Pam Grier’s barely given a chance to utter two lines before her head’s mounted on a spike – though she does get to proclaim her undying love for Natasha Henstridge – and before the final credits have rolled, just about every cult actor listed in that first entry above has lost their head in some way or another. Ghosts Of Mars isn’t the best film of the 2000s, but it’s certainly the most head-choppy.
6. Statham spends much of the film unlocking doors and describing rooms
Back in 2001, Jason Statham was still fresh from his early turns in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and Ghosts Of Mars was his second US acting gig after the hip-hopping drama, Turn It Up. Statham was originally set to play Desolation Williams, the convict role occupied by the pouting Ice Cube in the finished film, but he was nudged over into the slightly smaller role of Sergeant Jericho instead.
Coming at a time before we knew him as the oiled-up martial arts star of things like Crank and The Transporter, Statham’s given an awkward sort of role here. It’s established early in the film that Mars is a matriarchal society in the 22nd century, but this doesn’t stop Jericho from flirting and making suggestive comments to Henstridge’s Melanie Ballard throughout, and the fighting he does get to do is the semi-improvised, Adam-West-as-Batman sort of fighting, rather than the more technical stuff he’d do with Jet Li in The One later that year.
When he’s not doing all that, Jericho spends a lot of time unlocking doors, asking Ballard if he’d like to unlock some other doors, or explaining that still other doors can’t be opened because the locks are broken.
Jericho’s also the undisputed master of the understatement. Having discovered Pam Grier’s head on a spike, and looking over the edge of the quarry and seeing hundreds of demon-possessed people baying at the moon for blood, he mumbles into his radio, “Lieutenant, I think we’ve got a situation here…”
5. It’s another John Carpenter film with a tough guy in a black sleeveless shirt
One of the motifs that show up now and again in Carpenter’s films is the tough guy in a black sleeveless shirt. Assault On Precinct had one, and he was a thoroughly nasty individual who shot a little girl and got blood on her ice-cream.
Snake Plissken wore one in the marvellous Escape From New York, and you could tell he was tough, because he was played by Kurt Russell.
In fact, it’s possible that someone wears a black sleeveless shirt in every John Carpenter film, it’s just that you can’t see them because they’re covered up by a cardigan or cagoule. At any rate, the lucky man who gets to wear one this time is Ice Cube, and he’s certainly tough in this film, with all his swearing, pouting and gun firing. It’s possible that Carpenter awarded Mr Cube with the shirt to make up for saddling him with the name Desolation Williams.
4. People keep shooting demons even though they shouldn’t
Unless we’re severely mistaken (and it’s possible we are – it’s happened before), there’s a bit of a plot fault in Ghosts Of Mars. It’s established quite quickly that if a possessed human’s shot, the ghost inside it will leave that body and immediately go in search of another. In other words, gunning down these ghouls leaves the shooter more open to being possessed than if they’d left their firearm in its holster.
None of this perturbs the good guys in Ghosts Of Mars too much, who merrily run around blasting long-haired miners as though bullets are on sale at Walmart. Wouldn’t they be better off just shooting the monsters in the arms and legs instead, so they can’t run around throwing deadly frisbees at everyone?
Ice Cube’s character even tries to address this plot point directly in the final act. “You know when we kill one of them,” Desolation asks Ballard, “whatever’s inside’s gonna come after us?”
“I know,” Ballard agrees, “so if one of us gets possessed…”
Here, the scene sort of trails off; Ice Cube mumbles something in response, but it’s entirely inaudible. Within a few seconds, they’re cheerfully shooting ghouls in the head again.
3. Drugs repel demons
Tough lawman though she is, Ballard isn’t entirely squeaky-clean. Around her neck, in a little silver box marked with a Celtic knot, she carries a few unidentified pills, which she pops now and again when she’s feeling a bit low. They obviously have some kind of shamanic, trippy effect, because pictures of the sea are superimposed over her ecstatic face when she takes one.
Although this seems like a throwaway plot point at first, it circles back around later. When Ballard is suddenly possessed by a demon (because someone shot a nearby Martian ghoul, obviously), all seems lost until Jericho has the bright idea of sticking a pill in her mouth to see what happens.
Ballard has another drug trip, in which she sees the ancient Martians in their ugly, John Carter-like original form, and then the demon is suddenly expelled from her mouth like a blast of bad breath. Now, this discovery seems so miraculous that we thought the rest of the cast would immediately start popping Ballard’s pills, and then merrily gunning down monsters in a chemical-fuelled haze, now immune from demon possession.
Instead, the whole matter’s quietly dropped, which, when you consider the events that take place later in the film, is a bit weird…
2. There’s a flashback within a flashback within a flashback
When Ghosts Of Mars begins, Ballard’s found alone on the train, and the rest of the film’s violent events are a flashback, as Ballard recounts her sorry tale to some sort of tribunal. But in a nod to the narrative complexity of the gothic novel Wuthering Heights, Ghosts Of Mars doesn’t stop there.
During the bit where we see the demonic events unfold at Shining Canyon – that is, the main bulk of the film – Statham’s Sergeant Jericho shows up at the colony’s main building with three extra survivors. “Where the hell did you find these?” Ballard asks.
As Jericho explains, he gets a flashback of his own, where we see him exploring a shed shortly after finding Pam Grier’s head on a spike, and discovers the three survivors within it. He then has a bit of a conversation with them, in which he asks them what happened to the colony. This then triggers a further flashback from the survivor’s perspective, as he describes seeing the demons possess the bodies of miners, and all the bloody things that happened next.
What we have here, then, is a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. Inception, eat your heart out.
1. It constantly spoils its own surprises
Flashbacks are nothing new in movies, and if they’re used carefully, they can be quite effective. The original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has one, largely to avoid an originally intended bleak ending, but it’s inconspicuous enough that you almost forget that it exists. The same’s true of Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way.
In Ghosts Of Mars, though, you’re constantly being reminded that what you’re seeing is a flashback, because the story keeps cutting back to Ballard recounting her tale to the tribunal after all that’s happened. This makes Carpenter’s film relatively unusual, in that it’s essentially providing spoilers for itself before every major event.
Even towards the end, where Ballard and her crew have a chance to escape on their armoured train but decide to set off an explosion to get rid of the demons, the film cuts back to Ballard sitting in a chair and saying, “It was a simple plan. The only problem was it didn’t work how it was supposed to.”
Well, thanks for spoiling the surprise, Henstridge. Unfortunately, the gigantic explosion didn’t kill the demons, and the end of the film hints at a potential sequel: a gigantic demonic invasion hits Mars’ main city, and we see Desolation Williams and Ballard head off to war with their shiny machine guns.
Had Ghosts Of Mars been a hit, the sequel probably would have seen Desolation and Ballard high on anti-demon pills, and furthering the spread of possession by cheerfully shooting every human in their way.