RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 9: John Carpenter’s “Ghosts Of Mars” (2001)


The Players…

Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Joanna Cassidy and Pam Grier.

The Story…

Mars. Once Earth’s desolate, lifeless neighbor has since been colonized and terraformed into a new world where humanity can set up a new civilization. Of course, life on the frontier is rough business, and when the workers at a remote mining colony go missing, it’s up to the local marshals to get to the bottom of the mystery. These tough cops are ready for anything the planet can throw at them…except maybe Mars’ legacy with a history of violence.

The Rant…

I’ve noticed I’ve been sort of derelict in my duties lately here at RIORI. I haven’t been stressing how The Standard has applied to the last few movies I’ve scoured. I guess it’s necessary given my tendency to ramble, as well construct large blocks of text that doubtless gives you a headache to remind you of why we’re here. From the likes of what I’ve been reviewing, it’s been headache season for the past few months. Anywho, to review, The Standard is as follows. The movie had to be, more or less:

  1. Lacking in box office mojo (i.e.: a poor return at the box office);
  2. Made in the 21st Century, and/or;
  3. Misunderstood/misrepresented and perhaps needed a second look.

There will be a test later. Now then…

John Carpenter is one of my favoritest filmmakers. In addition to the classic bogeyman flick Halloween, Carpenter has helmed other noteworthy movies that are my faves. Escape from New York, The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China are choice feathers in the cap (I’m also a fan of Kurt Russell, probably because of these movies). I love Carpenter’s low budget, minimalist, DIY aesthetic. That and his wild ideas and dark sense of humor. His is almost like punk rock cinema.

The funny thing about his movies is that, for a guy best known for horror, they tend to be so low budget and stripped down they often come across as comic. Not funny ha-ha comic, but with a very firm tongue-in-cheek rather. You have to take his movies with either an entire lick of salt or let yourself in on the joke, otherwise you just plum won’t enjoy the movie. Even his scary movies have that dark humor sneaking along with the story, and it’s not usually hard to sniff it out.

It’s when it’s overt that we got a problem, and then the joke is on us…

Welcome to Mars. Two hundred years from now, the powers that be thought it was good idea to transform the barren, desert landscape of the Red Planet into an alternate Earth (the process is called terraforming) and create a new society for humanity. It sorta worked. The Martian frontier now is not unlike the Old West on Earth—boomtowns and mining operations on the fringes of the cities, rough and lawless. You need to have a pretty tough bunch of lawmen (and lawwomen) to keep those who’d do harm in line. That’s what Lt. Melanie Ballard (Henstridge) of the Martian Police Force and her cadre are all about, meting out justice, protecting the innocent, keeping the peace and kicking some ass when needed. At least they used to be. Stuff’s gone down since then.

Flashback (or flash-forward. It gets hard to tell after a while). A mining train trundles across the stormy surface of the planet back home, the Martian capital city of Chryse. When it arrives the authorities find it running on autopilot, its complement missing. Well not completely. Lt. Ballard is handcuffed to her bunk, unconscious, injured and of all things, drugged up. Looks like we got ourselves a mystery here.

After Ballard comes to, she’s debriefed by her superiors and out comes her implausible tale of what happened to the crew, her partners, that prisoner they were supposed to transport and locate the whereabouts of over a hundred miners out near the remote outpost of Shining Canyon.

Back up (or forward). Ballard was dispatched with her fellow officers to transport the very dangerous criminal James “Desolation” Williams (Cube) from holding in Shining Canyon to a max security prison. When the cops arrived, the mining town was deserted; the buildings vacant and there were signs that something…odd happened to the miners, if not otherworldly.

Once Desolation was relieved of his cell he recounted that something truly f*cked up went down there. Turned out the miners didn’t exactly vanish as much as they had “gone native.” They all retreated to the hills, started speaking in tongues, engaging it self-mutilation and taking great pleasure in decapitating outsiders. They appeared to be possessed by some sort of malevolent juju, and are out for blood. Something evil is afoot, and Ballard and her partners are stranded in Shining Canyon until the next train arrives.

The possessed miners are coming over the hill to prey on new game. Ballard and Co bunker down in the deserted, underground, maze-like tunnels of the mining town and start pooling their ammo. The next train isn’t for days, and the natives are indeed restless. So Ballard and crew have no choice but to bear down, take aim and survive. If the planet will let them…

For all of Carpenter’s lo-fi ethos, a better budget equals cleaner production. It’s a fact in movies. Ghosts is no different. Unfortunately Carpenter lost his grip on this one. And the end result, even with a heftier budget, is a film that could not be saved by any sum of money.

Ghosts is Escape From New York in space, with a hint of Evil Dead and a little Roshomon­ thrown in for good measure. Plus some additional spice from Lord of the Flies and The Road Warrior as well. It’s a hodgepodge of Carpenter’s earlier films as well as his influences. It was claimed that the man was running close to empty at the end of the 90s; he’s just running on fumes with Ghosts. Shame.

There isn’t an original bone in this movie’s body. It’s all ideas and scraps from Carpenter’s early films. There is an especially potent Assault on Precinct 13 smell wafting from the cineplex. The movie kind of plays out like a campfire tale: you’re just waiting and waiting for the storyteller to go boo. Keep on waiting. There is no sense of urgency in Ghosts and the pacing is sluggish. It’s like waiting in line to use the bathroom, only to find you’re out of toilet paper. Sh*t.

First off here, Henstridge’s acting if rather wooden. If she was cast just to look pretty, I wouldn’t be surprised. She never seems to be giving emoting even a try; she’s just going through the motions, and unconvincingly at that. Cube doesn’t fare much better. He snarls and barks like the dangerous character he’s portraying, but it just comes across as comical. For our leads, there’s no much leading going on at Shining Canyon. In reality, both stars don’t seem to be necessary in advancing the plot. They’re just…there. Neither have any presence, like they wished they were someplace else (like the Orwellian LA of They Live, for instance). That’s a shame, because both Henstridge can be sharp, and Cube has demonstrated his grim ‘n gritty chops in Boyz N The Hood and his wittiness in Barbershop. Both of their facets are strained here in Ghosts.

Speaking of comical, all the blood and gore was ridiculous. Not in the sense that is was excessive. Rather for trying to push the “horror” aspect of this movie, Carpenter confused “scary” with “bloody,” and proceeds to pick off the characters one by one in ways that are so over the top, they come across as laughable. It’s difficult to tell if this was intentional, or Carpenter fell asleep in the director’s chair. Maybe it was all foreshadowing of his eventually admitted resignation that he fell out of love with “her” (his pet name for making movies). Solidified with the rampant splatterfests, Carpenter flattens all of Ghosts corners, and later crashed on the chaise lounge with a half-empty New Orleans hurricane at his elbow, eventually spilled.

A final note: there are too many homages in this picture. Way too many. When I gave the recipe for Ghosts a few paragraphs back, it read like a Lego set with half the pieces missing. You know, pieces like character development, suspense, plot, all that sh*t. I pointed out that Carpenter has a dark sense of humor. Was Ghosts supposed to be a comedy that went horribly awry? And if so, why did Carpenter have to cannibalize his own movies? Sure, he has a great CV, and it’s been plundered already by countless cinema neophytes. But plagiarizing yourself? That only worked for John Fogarty, and just barely. In a word: snore.

I sniffed out Carpenter’s humor here easily. No subtlety. When it’s overt, it’s not entertaining. I don’t mean just humor. The man didn’t keep his cards close to his chest. In fact he threw his hand onto the table. He didn’t care about his audience here, even hardcore fans like myself. Bummer. This movie had a stinktastic reputation kickin’ about for over a decade. Now I see why.

I’m gonna go watch Escape From New York again for the zillionth time.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This movie was dumb, bottom line. What’s worse was that it wasn’t even original. Don’t blame me, blame the lazy director over on the chaise lounge, spent cigarette butts in his crotch.

Stray Observations…

  • Jason Statham, the UK’s answer to Bruce Willis, at least as far as hairlines go.
  • Cube’s facials here are hilarious. He always looks like he had a bad run-in with Taco Bell.
  • “And this is eight inches.”
  • Whitlock’s explanation of the dormant “ghosts” in arid climates is scientifically true. This might’ve been the germ that fostered Carpenter’s story, I’ll bet.
  • Henstridge’s hair clip is rather distracting.
  • So camo pants didn’t die with the 90s?
  • Was Big Daddy Mars really slapping at his ass when he was set on fire? I adore Carp’s sense of humor.
  • “Put your hand down!”
  • Say no to drugs.

Next Installment…

Spike Jonze takes us to Where the Wild Things Are. Supper can wait.

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