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Mars has fascinated humans for years. It's the closest planet to us, and the only one that comes close in terms of livability. Its forbidding landscape and dire red color scheme are magnetic (at least in movies; I can't tell you how disappointed I was when that little NASA toy-car thing sent back pictures and Mars looks like Utah. No red sky, even.)
But Mars has a curse. You just can't make a decent movie about it. Think about all the Mars movies in history (...Attacks!, Mission to..., Red Planet, Angry and otherwise, Santa Claus vs. the Martians, etc.), none of which have been able to rise above the "not bad, not great" category, if even that. The lone exception to the Mars Curse is "Total Recall", which is a fine film, but it can be persuasively argued that it never actually takes place on Mars at all.
Throw "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" on the "not bad" pile. Many have argued that it's not really a Mars movie, but a Western with a weird setting, which is indirectly true. It's mostly a re-working of Carpenter's classic "Assault on Precinct 13", which was, itself, based on "Rio Bravo". (I wonder when John Carpenter is just going to give in and make a bonafide Western. You can tell he totally wants to.)
While I'm on the subject, can someone tell me why John Carpenter seems bent on titling all his recent movies with "John Carpenter's", as if we'll forget? It implies, oddly enough, that he didn't actually direct it, the way "Ian Fleming's James Bond" books were published long after Fleming was, technically, dead.
Anyway, the plot involves a squad from the Martian Police Force doing a prisoner transfer from a mining colony. Mars, it seems, is run by the "Matronage", a kind of Lillith-Fair dictatorship, which is a neat twist and gives some original zip to the movie. The transfer is quickly forgotten, as some sort of primal ghostly force is possessing the locals and turning them into a blood-crazed cabal of body-pierced mutilation enthusiasts (the movie often resembles a Slipknot video run amok). The throngs are led by a bulked-up Maximum Leader who looks like Marilyn Manson's steroid-pumped older brother. The cops and criminals join forces with the contents of the Hollywood Gun Shop, and mow down the screaming hordes in an effort to escape. One wonders why Merchant-Ivory didn't pick up this project.
The intriguing setting, the impressive visuals, and some creepy early scenes build up a lot of audience goodwill, which the film then chips away at relentlessly, as if willing itself to mediocrity. The narrative is clumsy,
with way too much reliance on flashback. The story itself is primarily told in flashback, which is understandable even if it does reveal too much about what's about to happen. But do we really need flashbacks within the movie to show us things we've already seen? There are also too many pointless camera tricks, such as time-lapse dissolves in scenes that don't merit them. The characters are needlessly stupid, especially the cops; they too often resort to using their guns in baseball-bat fashion, when they still have plenty of ammunition.
The cast, unfortunately, is not up to the task of raising the movie above the bar. Natasha Henstridge, whose onomastically-pleasing name is inevitably abbreviated in movie criticism as "that chick from 'Species'", is wooden and uncompelling as the pill-popping police lieutenant. She is standing in in the role for an injured Courtney Love, who would have been more effective, if less pleasant to look at. Clea Duvall is wasted as a spaced-out and mostly useless rookie; she seems about as comfortable with a Beretta in each hand as Quaker Grace Kelly in "High Noon". But Duvall is at least more memorable than that other rookie, whatsisname. Pam Grier puts in a good-sport appearance as the commander, but her scenes are brief. And there is the obligatory Smart Person Who Explains It All, whose line deliveries and pseudo-science are such that you will wish the others would feed her to the Manson family outside.
The only standouts in the cast are Jason Statham as the weary (but horny) sergeant, easily the most tactically compentent of the MPF contingent, and Ice Cube as the prisoner whose transfer is in such turmoil. Mr. Cube's unfocused, pinch-faced rage and dumbfounded bravado are pitch-perfect, and he has all the funniest lines. (Ironic that in a movie about a distaff-dominated society, the best performances are by men).
"Ghosts of Mars" will not rank among John Carpenter's best work (and here I am specifically thinking of "Big Trouble in Little China"), but despite its deficiencies I enjoyed it. Carpenter still has it, and when he's good, he's very good. Desperate-survival-against-the-murderous-armies has a primal power as a story archetype, and there's plenty of gun-blazing, head-bashing, flying-buzzsaw-dismemberment fun to be had by all. The music's pretty good, too. And there's something about Henstridge and Duvall in black leather SWAT uniforms that just pushes a button somewhere. Maybe it's just me.
If you fight, you can enjoy this movie in spite of its efforts to the contrary, but you will be a little battle-weary by the time the credits roll. Not everyone will be inclined to put forth the effort. But hey, can you really hate a movie whose villain is billed as "Big Daddy Mars"?
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