One thing about JOHN CARPENTER’S GHOSTS OF MARS: it’s definitely John Carpenter’s GHOSTS OF MARS.
It has plenty of elements that could be perfect for one of his movies. It’s kind of a siege movie like ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, although the simplicity of that type of setup is mired in flashbacks and narration. It’s got a western motif – even though it’s in the future and on Mars there’s a train, and colonists possessed by angry Martian spirits take the place of the Natives defending their land. It’s got a ready-made anti-hero – Ice Cube as the bad-but-not-guilty-of-the-specific-crime-he’s-accused-of prisoner-in-transfer Desolation Williams. It has a pretty good soundtrack where Carpenter melds his style with a bunch of rock n roll dudes with electric guitars and drums, playing Martian tribal rock. It has Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Joanna Cassidy and Pam Grier in the cast! This shit should be great.
In the opening scene a train shows up in the human Martian settlement. It’s supposed to have a prisoner and a bunch of cops on it, instead it only has Lieutenant Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who is high on space pills. They bring her in to explain what happened to a space magistrate or something, and the movie is her flashback (with flashbacks within it, and sometimes flashbacks within those flashbacks within flashbacks). As far as I can tell this is not making any kind of statement about storytelling or memory or nothin, it’s just… a bunch of flashbacks. Complete with slow, old-timey dissolves and wipes, like when somebody comes out of a dream on a soap opera.
I want to like Natasha Henstridge, and obviously she’s real easy on the eyes, but she’s pretty stiff in what really needed to be a tough, charismatic lead. So it’s not surprising to read that she was cast about a week before filming, recommended by her boyfriend who was already in the movie. She apparently was exhausted from doing too many movies in a row, and at one point collapsed on set. If you look at her IMDb page she’s credited with six movies in 2000 and another two besides this in 2001. Give that lady a vacation.
Originally the character was gonna be played by Courtney Love – I’m not sure how that would’ve gone. Officially she had to drop out because her ankle got run over by a car (you know how that is), but Drew McWeeny reported at the time that the studio forced her out after “the rehearsal and pre-production period [were] wrought with tension as it became clear the casting wasn’t going to work.” It’s anybody’s guess if that refers to unreliability due to drug problems or just being horribly miscast. She had done some good performances in a couple of Milos Forman movies, but it’s hard to picture her wearing leather and running around on Mars with Ice Cube. Or hopping around if it was true about her ankle. Shit, even if she would’ve been worse than Henstridge I kind of wish it happened.
Anyway, it’s too bad Henstridge didn’t get more time to prepare. She does some tough things, like punching a guy and putting him in an armbar when he says “I’ll cut your fuckin titties off.” But she doesn’t sell it like a real action hero. I don’t believe she’s the toughest one on this train. Pam Grier is on there.
John Carpenter in-joke: at one point Pam Grier asks “Who goes there?” Get it, ’cause that’s the title of the story that THE THING was based on. But also it’s just funny to hear somebody say “Who goes there?”
GHOSTS OF MARS is the story of some members of the Mars Police Force (the futuristic equivalent to our own Earth Police Force) who come to pick up a dangerous prisoner, but they find the town where the jail is located nearly deserted, and most of the people left behind have gone crazy, given themselves a bunch of piercings and are roaming around in a big army going CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST on a motherfucker, chopping off heads and putting them on stakes, roaring, etc. So they can tell that something is wrong.
“It was almost like she was… possessed,” Ballard explains in her testimony when describing a particular incident. “Like there was some kind of force inside her.”
No Ballard, it wasn’t almost like she was possessed. She was possessed, not just by “some kind of force inside her” but specifically by the ghost of a dead Martian, transferred via breathing the red dust of Mars. You know this for sure, because you personally breathed in the dust and became possessed, even saw Martian history flash through your brain. You should say “She was possessed by Martian ghosts, and here’s how I know this,” instead it’s this “It was almost like she was… possessed” shit.
She wants it to be an entertaining story I guess. That’s also why she includes parts where she gets high and where she almost gets laid. Most people would skip over that stuff in their sworn testimony.
Ice Cube’s prisoner character is called “Desolation” Williams, which in my opinion is in the lower percentile of good nicknames, although better than some rapper names including Flo Rida, Chamillionaire and Rappin 4-Tay. It would’ve been a routine prison transfer, except “there’s nothing routine about this prisoner.” He gets a decent introduction, with Cube sitting dramatically shadowed in his cell, refusing to talk. But like all the characters in the movie he doesn’t get anything non-cliche to do or say ever. I guess he gets to talk a little more like Ice Cube than Snake Plissken does. He says “Drop the weapon before I cut this dyke bitch head off!” (The Martians do it instead. Off screen.)
One weird aspect is Ballard’s pill addiction. It ends up saving her from getting her body taken over by Martians, so it’s one of the healthier addictions you could have. At one point Desolation says “Look at you. You look high right now,” and it’s funny because she doesn’t look high at all. I figure Carpenter must’ve wrote that in there because he assumed Courtney Love would look high the whole time. But it’s weird that he left it in.
Man, the dialogue that’s supposed to set up a John Woo type relationship between cop and criminal is so fuckin lazy:
BALLARD: See, that’s where you’re wrong. I’m a cop, not a crook.
DESOLATION WILLIAMS: There’s a thin line between a cop and a crook these days. You think it’s a big difference between you and me? You just got The Woman behind your bullshit.
Oh, by the way, he says “The Woman” ’cause the Martian colonists are a matriarchy. That’s one unique touch. They got assigned a rookie named Jericho, and even though it’s Jason Statham they’re disappointed, saying “I was hoping we’d get a good solid woman we could count on.” Kind of like how Dirty Harry would act when he finds out his new partner is a woman.
One scene that threw me in both 2001 and 2011 is the one where Jericho tells her he wants to show her something, brings her into a room and explains that there’s only one door and no windows, so they could “dance.” Even in a matriarchy dudes are always hitting on chicks, I guess. The two characters have been completely hostile toward each other so she justifiably gets pissed off, but then suddenly says “Okay” and starts to go for it.
It’s a completely what-the-fuck? moment, but after thinking about it some I decided it must’ve been intended as a play on this matriarchal society. Most male action heroes wouldn’t go for an out-of-the-blue blowjob offer from some ho, unless it was a scene where they get seduced as part of a trap and they fall for it. But if he did do it in a non-trap situation it probly wouldn’t seem as weird as it does here, it would show that he’s awesome because the ladies throw themselves at him. I guess James Bond or Shaft would go for it. Or Machete. Maybe if Henstridge’s character had that kind of charisma it would come across better. I thought this scene made her seem weak, but now I realize it’s supposed to make her a “pimp.”
But it took me a while to decode that because the gender roles and their reversal don’t seem to really have any meaning in here, it’s just kind of a novel idea that doesn’t get fleshed out. Women are in charge, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Desolation can still get Ballard’s attention by grunting “Hey lady!,” so I don’t think society has changed that drastically.
The colonization theme doesn’t amount to much either. Obviously there’s a parallel here to what my European ancestors did to the Natives. Now the Earthlings are building trains and shit on holy Martian lands, and they’re paying for it. But you don’t get any sense of “oh shit, we reap what we sow” or anything like that. I think the Martians were already wiped out before the humans got there. And if not they’re still hard to sympathize with because they’re cruel, self-mutilating, Pam-Grier-decapitating beasts. They seem like they deserve to be colonized. They deserve to be turned into ghosts of ghosts of Mars.
By the way, although the Martians are represented by humans with crazy piercings and face paint those are only their avatars. There’s one part where you see a flash of a corny big-eyed alien puppet guy so you know what they used to look like in pre-ghost form. I forgot about that.
Way too many aspects of this seem half-assed. Maybe if the performances were better it could sell the dialogue better. Maybe if the dialogue was better it could sell the world better – the uniforms they wear, the goggles that help them breathe the Mars atmosphere, the fucking Martian Police Force. Maybe if the world was better it would sell the phony looking soundstage Martian ghost town. But no, it didn’t happen.
This movie bums me out. In the summer of 2001, especially for a guy like me who liked VAMPIRES, John Carpenter was still a great, working director. Then he made this.
FLASH FORWARD TEN YEARS: It took Carpenter this long to make another movie, and it’s THE WARD, which came out on video last week. It’s about a girl who’s found burning down a house, doesn’t remember how she got there, and they put her in an asylum. She befriends some other girls there, they think some force is trying to kill them so they start hatching an escape plan. I guess nobody told them they could imagine they were in a brothel where they do sexy dances and imagine that they’re in WWI flying around in a robot blowing the shit out of steam-powered re-animated soldier corpses. Isn’t that the best way to deal with asylum life? Maybe next time.
I wanted to do a full-on review for THE WARD but to be honest the movie’s kind of left my head already so I don’t have much to say about it. So I’ll say that it’s a well made, completely solid movie, way more competent, slick and stylish than GHOSTS OF MARS. But like I said, forgettable. The thing is that after GHOSTS OF MARS and all this time it’s a relief that it doesn’t suck. It’s like if you had a cat that disappeared into the woods one night and you didn’t see it for months and figured it got killed by a raccoon or something. And then it shows up and holy shit, it’s still alive. If it’s just walking around normal you’ll be proud of it because you never thought you’d see it again. Okay, the cat seems a little off, not quite what it used to be, but generally healthy. That’s THE WARD. It can walk. Give it a treat.
I mean it’s actually decent, it’s pretty good. But if I saw it without any idea of what it was I would never guess it was made by John Carpenter. It doesn’t feel like something that comes from his brain. Maybe it’s partly because he decided he’s too old to do the scores anymore, so it doesn’t sound like one of his movies. A crucial element of the JC style is completely missing. They call it JOHN CARPENTER’S THE WARD because otherwise you wouldn’t know it was his.
So what’s better, a pure but shitty John Carpenter movie like GHOSTS OF MARS, or a solid but anonymous one like THE WARD? Flip a coin, I guess. Or pick THE WARD, I don’t care. Either way GHOSTS OF MARS is not a happy way to wind down the summer of ’01.
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legacy: John Carpenter retired from the big screen for 10 years after this. Supporting player Jason Statham went on to become one of the biggest action stars of the current era.
datedness: the whole look and tone of the movie already seemed hokey in 2001.
would they make a movie like this today: of course not
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I seem to remember back in 2001 being dumbfounded by a rave review in some overseas auteurist magazine like Cahiers du Cinema or something, but I couldn’t find it. The best I could do was this open-minded piece calling it “an interesting failure.”
Here’s my original review, written when I didn’t know who Jason Statham was, but I still suggested Natasha Henstridge’s character should’ve gone at him with a strap-on.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.