Ghosts of Mars
aka John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars

USA, 2001. Rated R. 98 minutes.

Cast: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Liam Waite, Lobo Sebastian, Richard Cetrone
Writers: Larry Sulkis, John Carpenter
Music: Anthrax, John Carpenter
Cinematographer: Gary B. Kibbe
Producer: Sandy King
Director: John Carpenter


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

John Carpenter is the king of the B-movie. Whether it's vampires or extraterrestrial monsters or hockey mask-wearing maniacs, it's all the same to John Carpenter, who has made the same movie a dozen times since he established the modern slasher picture with Halloween. To his credit, Carpenter didn't direct the sequels to Halloween, and has occasionally changed pace with movies like Starman. But mentally untaxing, low-budget action/horror is his domain.

Carpenter movies are unoriginal in plot, but they have a distinctive low-budget and tongue-in-cheek mood. Sometimes, they are enormously entertaining, like Escape from New York (a futuristic action movie that envisioned the entire island of Manhattan as a prison), The Thing (a remake of the 1950s science-fiction thriller that was really just a replica of Alien), or even They Live, probably the most hilariously absurd, low-rent action/thriller in his filmography--or anyone else's. Other times, especially in the last ten years, his movies are misfires, like Escape from L.A., an ill-advised, belated sequel to Escape from New York with more jokes, but fewer successful ones. And like Ghosts of Mars.

In terms of plot, Ghosts of Mars is a George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) or Lucio Fulci (Zombie) movie transplanted to another planet. In a nutshell, extraterrestrial spirits on Mars are possessing the human miners who disturb them. Ice Cube is a bad-ass convictWhat do ancient extraterrestrial spirits do after lying dormant for millennia? They deface their new bodies with knives and piercings and run amok, allowing Carpenter to indulge in his beloved low-budget gore.

The Martians aren't as sluggish as shambling zombies, but they are otherwise the same: ferocious, contagious, and cheesy-looking. Contagion is, of course, an essential element of a movie such as this. All the good guys must be in danger of turning into bad guys. A man killed by a zombie will turn into a zombie. Similarly, John Carpenter's vampires in Vampires were contagious, naturally, being vampires, and the titular monster from The Thing killed and imitated human beings.

Ghosts of Mars is a '70s zombie picture with the posturing bravado and buddy-movie elements of an '80s sci-fi/action picture. Human society on Mars is a matriarchy with cheap sets, and everyone is pretty much either a cop or a criminal (or a poor doomed s.o.b.). Natasha Henstridge (Species) plays Melanie Ballard, a tough-as-nails (obviously) cop. Ice Cube (Boyz in the Hood) is "Desolation" Williams, a tough-as-nails (obviously) criminal. The two must set aside their differences (obviously) to survive. Henstridge and Ice Cube are as emotionally demonstrative as particularly catatonic stumps of wood and recite their banter with disinterest, but they do have an intangible appeal that transcends the by-the-numbers material. Jason Statham, from Snatch and Lock, Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels, is Jericho Butler, a cop who evidently never saw Species, because he never misses a chance to hit on Henstridge. Pam Grier, a veteran of campy entertainment with good instincts for it, appears all-too-briefly as Helena, Ballard's lesbian commanding officer.

Despite the lack of anything remotely original, Ghosts of Mars is watchable, probably more so than big-budget fiascos like Tomb Raider. Carpenter never loses sight of the fact that he's making a BAD movie. He keeps the tone light and the plot simple. It seems that studios these days are inclined to burden action movies with awkward appeals to every demographic on the face of the Earth (gotta have a kid! family drama! a moral message!) instead of focusing on the target audience. Carpenter never forgets his target audience: lovers of John Carpenter movies. You know who you are, and you don't need a review to tell you whether to see this movie.

Review © August 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Sony Pictures Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page