Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (2001)

20. Ghosts of Mars

“Ghosts of Mars” is the only John Carpenter movie I had never seen before starting work on this report card. This is because, by all accounts, it’s wretched and widely considered the filmmaker’s worst work. However, as a fair and balanced critic, I never let any preconceived notions affect my aesthetic judgement. It was time to give “Ghosts of Mars” a fair chance.

The movie has a lot to get out of the way to set up its plot. Set in the 22nd century, on Mars, in a society ruled by women… Wait a minute, isn’t that alone more then enough to build a movie on? Yes. Yes, it is. A science fiction film about a future were women are in control of society would be fascinating. So would a movie about colonizing Mars. But that’s not what “Ghosts of Mars” is about. Instead, it's a sci-fi semi-remake of “Assault on Precinct 13.” A squad of Mars police officers head to a remote mining post to pick up a notorious criminal. Upon reaching the location, they find lots of dead bodies, a handful of locked-up crooks, and, most dangerously, a supernatural Martian ghost virus that possesses people and turn them into raging, murderous, self-mutilating zombies.

Aside from skimming over probably the most interesting parts of the story with some brief on-screen titles, the main issue with “Ghosts of Mars” is that it’s cast is far too large. We start out with five or six officers, bringing in Ice Cube’s awkwardly nick-named “Desolation” Williams. There are a few other surviving prisoners present, an exposition-dropping doctor shows up, before the rest of Desolation’s criminal crew wanders into the story. This is an action movie, so I would never expect a cast that large to get any extended developments. However, many of the characters getting absolutely no development is unacceptable. Who are the additional three prisoners in the mine? Who is the secondary male police officer? What’s the story behind Ice Cube’s buddies? The film provides no answers.

Even the main characters aren’t necessarily developed well. Natasha Henstridge’s Lt. Ballard, the protagonist, is introduced early with a drug problem, some sort of future pill that causes disorientation. This is strictly a Chekov’s Drug Addiction. The topic comes up once more and only to provide a bizarre out for a later plot development. Jason Statham, the Second-Coming of Cheesy Action Flick Stars, plays the second-in-command. Statham’s innate likability is undermined by him constantly hitting on Henstridge in skeevy ways. Whither or not this kind of attitude would develop at all in a matriarchal society is a question probably outside of a sci-fi/horror/action hybrid’s scope. The movie’s inability to make this plot development seem natural or plausible is another thing. When the movie actually tries to force these two into a romance, right in the middle of the crisis, it is truly eye-rolling.

Some of the smaller supporting characters are cartoonish. Joanna Cassidy is hopelessly miscast as Dr. Whitlock. Cassidy drops awful dialogue, never making it believable. The character wields some exposition, eventually providing an explanation for the demonic-alien-zombie plague. She disappears for large portions of the film. The trio of criminals that show up nearly an hour in are terrible. Duane Davis’ Uno has the most laughably silly lines in the movie and Davis almost seems to be intentionally playing his goofy dialogue for comedy. Rodney A. Grant’s Tres is another drug addict, which isn’t expanded on, accidently cuts his own thumb of, and gets killed not long after. Lobo Sebastian’s Dos isn’t even given that much personality.

And speaking of killing people off… There are some talented characters actresses in the supporting cast, such as personal favorite Clea DuVall and the original bad-ass babe Pam Grier. Grier dies quickly and, while DuVall sticks around for a while, she’s only given a smidge of a personality. In the last act, the movie starts slashing through the supporting cast. Characters that were important throughout most of the run-time are murdered with abandon. The survivors don’t comment on this at all and the film’s treats their deaths with as little weight. It gives you the impression that the filmmaker’s really didn’t care about these characters at all.

Henstridge actually does a decent job in the part. She’s likable and convincing. The movie mostly avoids oogling the lovely actress, which makes the extraneous underwear scene especially gratuitous. (Though not entirely unappreciated.) A scene were she beats down a zombie bare-handed gives the impression that she probably could have been a decent female action star, if the movie hadn’t have bombed so bad. That’s more then you can say for Ice Cube. He bluntly spits out most of his lines and sleepwalks through the role. He’s not believable as an action star either, blandly running around, shooting people.

How does “Ghosts of Mars” function as an action movie? Some of the fight scenes are decent, like a close-quarters shoot-out with the hordes of crazies. Others, like the gang running through the village, guns blazing and grenades blasting, come off as weirdly off-balanced. Carpenter seems unusually preoccupied with characters getting tossed into the air by explosions. The action is never incoherent but occasionally falls into the “guns go off, people fall down” style I frequently criticize.

How does “Ghosts of Mars” function as a horror movie? There are a handful of jump scares, none of which are memorable. The mutilated zombies are the main horrific elements. It’s actually a semi-interesting concept and one that was previous explored in “Return of the Living Dead 3” and would be better exploited in “Firefly” and “Serenity” later on. The make-up for most of the homicidal nutcases is fine. The script provides the baddies with a clear leader, a big guy in shoulder-pads with long hair and Alice Cooper face-paint. He’s goofier looking and given the most screen-time. The zombie make-up is better then the gore make-up, some of which is embarrassingly shoddy. I’m talking Kool-Aid clear blood and heads popping off like corks. The film’s CGI is similarly weak. A balloon crash is awkwardly matted. Red smoke clouds and exploding trains haven’t aged well, if they ever looked good to begin with.

The script stumbles. Henstridge is narrating the story to a judge. Despite this, there are several scenes were her character isn’t present, raising the question of how she knows what happened. (Not to mention the flashbacks within flashbacks.) The rules regarding the rage-creating ghost-demons aren’t well explained and sometimes vary from scene to scene. A scene giving us a glimpse at the Martians in their natural form is bizarre. The ending, with Henstridge and Cube walking off, loading guns, quipping one-liners back and forth, seems to set-up a sequel that was never going to happen.

The most disappointing thing about the film for me is how clumsy Carpenter’s direction is. There are POV shots a plenty. However, they are shaky and washed in red coloration. Instead of creating atmosphere or suspense, they come off as distracting and hokey. Dissolve transitions between scenes is repeatedly use, in a baffling decision. Even more baffling are the swipe-pan transitions used a few times at well. I don’t know what John or his editor was thinking with that one. I’m not a fan of the score, a collaboration between Carpenter and a number of heavy metal guitarist. The main theme is solidly electronic but the thrash-metal elements are generic and rob the action scenes of any tension. In the latter half, the movie’s pace really slows to a crawl, even if characters are gunning and dying on-screen.

So is “Ghosts of Mars” as bad as its reputation? Not quite. Oh, it’s bad, an embarrassment to the director’s career. It is, pretty much without question, John’s worse film. However, it’s less of a massive boondoggle and more of a mediocre bore. The critical, fan, and box office dismissal of the movie would put Carpenter off feature filmmaking for nearly a decade, not to mention all-but ending Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube’s careers. [Grade: D+]


Jack Thursby said...

Interesting bit of trivia to add. Apparently Carpenter wanted Jason Statham to play Desolation Williams but the execs thought he wasn't famous enough at the time and the movie would have more appeal with Ice Cube. I don't think having Statham in the lead would have saved the film but it might have improved it marginally.

Keep up the reviews, really enjoying this series.

Bonehead XL said...

It wouldn't have improve the pacing, writing, or effects problems, but Statham starring probably would have made the movie more entertaining. Hell, he made "In the Name of the King" at least sort of watchable, and even on an off day John Carpenter is miles ahead of Uwe Boll.

Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate every reader I have.