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Ghosts of Mars Review

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by Chris McEneany May 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Ghosts of Mars Review

    Having taken great pleasure in drafting praise-heavy and indulgent reviews for John Carpenter's Halloween, Assault Of Precinct 13, The Fog and The Thing, I have also rarely been able to keep from mentioning the cult independent director's severe fall from grace in the years since the likes of the release of his actioner, Big Trouble In Little China, arguably the last good movie that has had his name attached to it. But the time has come to actually revisit one of the primary examples of this meteoric plummet and take a good, long look at the components that helped bring about this perplexing downfall in a clinical and cold light. 2001's Ghosts Of Mars epitomises the things Carpenter has allowed to interfere with his once trailblazing style and imaginative savvy and will provide as good an incision into the sore wound that his talents seem to have degenerated into ever since studio manipulation and critical misinterpretation began to dog him in the mid-eighties.

    Reworking his own independent hit, Assault On Precinct 13, and re-locating it to Mars, circa 2175, Carpenter combines two of his most cherished and successful genres - horror and SF - into one protracted set-piece of diluted, hum-drum menace and ill-conceived plotting. Man has colonies mining the Red Planet and, just like in Peter Hyams' considerably superior Outland (1981), these hard-living, hard-drinking pioneers need policing. Taking a curiously feminist stance, the staunchly militaristic police - a definite reference back to the hard-line, neo-fascist legal junta that ruled Snake Plissken's America - have the job of keeping order in wild frontier towns and industrial outposts dotted across the Martian deserts. When a “routine” prisoner transfer - don't you just hate that “routine” tag that plagues every movie mission that comes along? - to move a notorious outlaw from a lonely settlement on the edge of nowhere back to Mars' main citadel results in both the police patrol and the criminal and his cronies being forced into a fragile alliance when everyone else seems hell-bent on dismembering them. Poor Natasha (Species) Henstridge and Jason Statham as, respectively, Lt. Melanie Ballard and Sgt. Jericho (ha!) Butler, have their work cut out for them when they discover that the apparent ghost-town of dumb-hicksville actually is full to brimming with “ghosts” - the inhabitants having been turned into violence-loving berserkers by the festering spirits of angry, long-dormant Martians. With their transport out of space-age Dodge still some hours away, and the surrounding tin-shack enclave swarming with possessed freak-shows, they must defend themselves by whatever means necessary and try to make it back to civilisation in one piece.

    All of this is told in lamentably mishandled flashback by Ballard who, facing an official hearing about what happened to her fellow officers, appears to be the only survivor of the ill-fated mission.

    Now, on paper, this must have seemed like a tremendous idea. Carpenter is able, in one mighty Martian-baked swipe, to combine his love for Westerns, Hawksian tough-guy (and gal) banter, a race against time, the gallant last stand, and the quintessential noir-ish role reversal of crooks and crims becoming heroes and the earnest banding together of so many disparate characters in extremis. This futuristic yarn of macho, galactic rozzers fighting a desperate pitched battle against horrific odds is a gleeful, wish come true opportunity for the director to remake his own Assault On Precinct 13 - which was, itself, a loose homage to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo - and, once again, detail his firm belief that evil is always an outside, and “external” force that cannot be bargained with. But the plot's big ideas are ALL lost amid the decelerating thrills, the woeful character exchanges and a bungled narrative flow that sees different characters' perspectives all being conveyed by the same person! We are told that this society is a matriarchal one, yet this concept is then swiftly tossed aside with only a smattering of tough girl cops and Statham's perplexing comment to Ballard that he is a “breeder” to remind us that blokes may not be quite the prime movers and shakers on Mars. Exactly what is possessing the miners and why it has such a hatred for humans is never made clear. Half-hearted attempts to give the star captive, Desolation (!) Williams (Ice Cube) some kind of ambiguous folkloric status don't work either. His own entry into the tale is incredibly subdued and uneven. In fact, very little of the screenplay from Carpenter and Larry Sulkis actually works. Even staple scenes of nervous people wandering around shadowy corridors and entering darkened rooms have little to no creepy element, and Carpenter's sub-Aliens colony massacre-aftermath elicits only a residual sense of dread. With the possessed folk chanting and wailing just over the ridge and the evidence of their fascination for improvised weaponry and sharpened metal adorning every surface in town, you keep getting the impression that something more will be revealed about their nature, their intentions and what makes them tick. But all Carpenter is able to give us is the blandly un-threatening red mist that worms into victims' bodies and takes them over, the out-of-focus crimson-vision that the infected see their new prey with, and a confusing trance-cum-dream-sequence that hints at their true form. All of these effects are visually and emotionally poor. Shocks are few and far between, too, and seem only to be of the sudden something lurching out from the dark side of the frame variety. Despite the frequent atrocities being committed, we never actually fear any of the crew falling into enemy hands - and possibly even wish that it would happen to more of them a helluva lot sooner than it, ultimately, does. And that's not right, is it?

    Carpenter's preference for genre stars means that we get Pam Grier as a tough, polished mahogany-faced police captain swirling about the alien set in a ridiculously long leather coat, Blade Runner's snake-cavorting Joanna Cassidy as Whitlock, the tufty-mopped archaeologist responsible for unleashing the Martian red mist of doom in the first place, and former Elm Street cop and Clint Eastwood pal Doug McGrath as a soon-to-be-possessed prisoner and, very expectedly, Carpenter-regular Peter Jason, as the unconvincing prison-train driver. Carnivale's lantern-jawed Clea DuVall is also on-hand as a rookie cop, but her melancholic excellence in that awesome dust-ball fantasy is nowhere in evidence in this hollow vessel of a character. But at least the cockney grit and iron of our own Jason Statham serves as an antidote to the perma-scowling Ice Cube's notorious Desolation Williams. Horny and grimly practical, he is about the only person hefting weaponry with any degree of credibility, although this was still before he would go on to carve and pummel his way to action-anti-hero demigod status with The Transporter, Crank and Death Race. So, with only Henstridge and Statham coming across as anything other than tedious, wafer-thin ciphers - and even then, only just - the cast are left to meander from pillbox to portacabin with monotonous regularity whilst Richard Cetrone's incredibly silly Martian leader snarls and hisses babbling commands to his tribe of extreme gypsies. Incidents pile-up, but the cumulative effect of them only makes us colder and more hostile towards the supposed good guys, the film losing critical viewer-empathy with each second we spend in the company of these stubborn clichés going exactly nowhere fast.

    The much ridiculed “flashback-within-flashback” concept of narrative-oblivion is something that I still cannot get my head around. God, what was Carpenter thinking? This just has to be the most idiotic and ineptly handled framework you can imagine. The plot is simple and, as with many of Carpenter's prior successes, it should have been kept that way. Halloween, Assault, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Starman and Christine had traditionally linear narratives that didn't require any daft circumventing embellishment of exposition to tell their stories. Arguably, Carpenter realises that Mars has actually got the most simplistic and weakest of screenplays, and perhaps seeks to invigorate it with such thematic trappings to make the film more decorative and stylish. But the point of these flashbacks and memories from multiple viewpoints is squandered, and they become utterly superfluous to the plot, essentially diffusing any and all tension that may have happened to accidentally wander in. Carpenter magnificently dropped the suspense ball in Prince Of Darkness when he had his protagonists trapped in separate rooms for an idiotic middle stretch in which they did not nothing but twiddle their thumbs, and even if he doesn't quite do the same thing here, he allows the tension and any residue of excitement that there may have been to drain away with a cack-handed lack of planning. Every time our heroes step outside, they are surrounded by rock-video rejects and, alongside us, are forced to endure another sloppy round of juvenile hand-to-hand combat, and the amount of scenes that have the “possessed” running en masse from location to location just beggars belief. Carpenter even does some incredibly useless editing via drifting dissolves that has our leads stylistically moving down corridors with utterly redundant frame-jumping to help them on their way. What for? What possible motive could there have been to have Ballard and Jericho - sorry, but I must snigger when I say that name - magically morph a foot or two at a time when there is no thematic, emotional or visual reason for doing so?

    Such techniques work exceptionally well in context - David Fincher's Alien 3, for example, when the convicts walk through the doused-inferno that failed to kill the beast but took out several of their own in the process. He even wastes time with a sloppily helmed couple of sequences that chronicle an escape, a capture, a jailbreak and another re-capture, once more deliberately clogging-up a plot that would be much better without such pointless, self-serving lunacy making it the filmic equivalent of a game of Frogger.

    Stock characterisation is perfectly acceptable with a genre flick, but even here, Carpenter's crowd of naff heroes strikes a particularly low note. All Jericho wants is to get down 'n' dirty with Ballard - which is understandable, of course, but with hordes of snarling extras waiting in the wings, it is hardly the most pressing thing to be concerned with. Ballard is a stalwart, one-note warrior, despite that minor assignation she has with some bland drug taking, who makes it clear that she has no time for his amorous advances (or for those of Grier's lesbian commander, for that matter), yet remarkably she concedes to them at the most inopportune moment - a bit like Snake Plissken and one-time Mrs Kurt Russell, Season Hubley, in Escape's “Crazies” sequence, I suppose, but much less believable. To be fair, Henstridge does her best, but she is not working with much to begin with. Her decision-making and her risk-taking allow for most of the action scenes to take place, but her horribly deadpan conduct in the official hearing robs any concerns we may have had for her safety right from the get-go. If none of what took place bothers her all that much, then why should we care either? Whitlock could have been a fun character. She is a borderline wacko, yet she was in charge of the mining operation over on the other side of the canyon. Her escape and evasion of the carnage in an improvised balloon also marks her out as some kind of maverick adventurer. But for a supposed academic, why is she so laconic, streetwise and resilient? It doesn't add up.

    The charisma that Ice Cube showed in the likes of Three Kings is noticeably lacking here. His cursory verbal snipes are dished out with all the gravitas and urban humour of the glummest kid on the block and he exudes exactly none of the roguish charm of Darwin Joston who, as Assault's heroically cynical Napoleon Wilson, was clearly the reference for this supposedly infamous bandit. Inept comedy is also doled out when a trio of his compadres contrive to turn up - a finger-slicing accident being the dubious high-point of their pathetic slapstick routine. Henstridge and Ice Cube are also responsible for some of the worst exchanges in the film - who cares who saved which one's life this time around? And they are even allowed to end the film with a couple of lines and a shot of camaraderie so cringe-worthy that it makes your teeth itch.

    Another huge misstep that Carpenter makes is in the truly lame manner in which he tackles the killings of lead characters. We've already established that we don't care who lives or dies - although if you are like me, you could probably feel inclined towards a complete massacre of the whole damn lot of them - but the incredibly lacklustre demises of certain key personalities means that the man helming the movie was, indeed, just washing his hands of them, himself. Suspense is conspicuous by its absence throughout. And the set-pieces are some of the worst that the genre has to offer. I've already stated in the review for the BD of Assault On Precinct 13 that, being honest, the final battle is over and done with far too quickly and doesn't entirely satisfy, and Carpenter seems to be consciously aware that he should try to rectify this with an all-out, guns 'n' elbows, roundhouse-kicks and head-butts finale that just doesn't seem to end. But with zero dramatic build-up and relentless repetition of giggle-inducing fight choreography, he completely derails any hopes for genuine kick-ass fun. The race-against-time element - will this ragtag group of hardened survivors make it to the train or not - is badly botched, as well. So many “in-jeopardy” lines are just dropped flat to the floor that the cast often seem as though their mouths have been anaesthetised. Ballard's bizarre decision to stop the train and actually go back after they have fought to get away all night long marks an exceptional new low for group interaction. Carpenter clamours for our nails to be bitten to the quick, but his lumpen direction of such situations is more likely to have us struggling to keep our eyes open. Where is the man who kept us on the edge of our seats just by having a group of bearded loners taking a blood test? What happened to the guy who split our attention between a woman trapped on top of a lighthouse and a group of argumentative strangers besieged in a Fog-bound church, and shredded our nerves at the same time?

    He doesn't even bother with any of his famed Panaglide camera-prowls - and this wretched assortment of huts and outbuildings, cell blocks and maintenance rooms would surely have benefited from his three-dimensional visual tours. In fact, the cinematography from Gary Kibbe, who had also performed similar duties for Carpenter on Village Of The Damned, They Live, In The Mouth Of Madness and Vampires, is largely uninspired and dry, although a couple of aerial shots of the townships nestling on the Martian plains do look quite good and provide a much-needed, though brief sense of scale and grandeur.

    And the bad guys are pathetic. I mean what exactly are they? The Martian spirits inhabiting the possessed husks of these mining folks seem to have an arbitrary desire for self-mutilation. But why? Well, presumably just so that they can maraud around the red set a little more convincingly to Carpenter's own exceedingly poor hard rock score. Piercings and tattoos, face-paint and filed-down teeth just don't make them scary or, ahem, even remotely alien-looking, John. And, get this, the entire mob of them - and their numbers seem to remain constant no matter how many of them get wasted - are already wearing fetishist gear to begin with. Just what kind of people are future Earth authorities entrusting with terraforming another planet? These headbangers are so, so pathetic that I'm going to ditch the rest of this paragraph about them, because if Carpenter can't muster up the imagination to make them at least partially intriguing or threatening, then I'll be damned if I could be bothered wasting any more time on them, myself.

    Oh, but hang on a minute ... there is that big bogeyman leader, Daddy Mars, isn't there?

    Okay, well let's have a look at what the creator of Michael Myers, the barnacled wraiths from The Fog and the shape-shifting alien infiltrator at that little research outpost in Antarctica came up with to plague our nightmares this time around. Modelled purely on Marilyn Manson, this leather-bound ogre is literally laugh-out-loud funny. Oh, he may compel his yawn-inducing lackeys to commit acts of nasty barbarism - constructing a line of heads on spikes in a nod (pun intended) to Escape's warning not to drive down Broadway - and he certainly has a fine line in tongue-tripping gibberish, but just roaring incoherently and sending his metal-head minions running about here, there and everywhere like some Thrash-happy PT instructor, is villainy of the most dumbfounded, clueless and risible. Surely, Carpenter can't have descended to the Z-grade level of having his monster just loom up of the smoke and rubble of an unsociable semi-incineration to just bellow, growl and make faces at the camera? Tell me it ain't so ...

    Ahhh, sorry ... but it most certainly is.

    Yet, incredibly, there are some elements that I believe he actually almost pulls off.

    For one thing, Carpenter revels in the close-knit group under pressure angle that he has always been adept at exploiting. Here it may not be as organic, emotive or as easily empathised with, but there is an undeniable frisson of that essential backs-against-the-wall, last-ditch, do-or-die atmosphere that he founded so well with Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween and, of course, The Thing. His evocation of Mars is hardly all that revelatory, but then it doesn't need to be. In fact, we don't even need to have this tale take place on another planet - any cut-off corner of treacherous isolation would do just as fine. But there is something decidedly eerie about his rust-tinted landscape. This is Doctor Who's famed 70's quarry but drenched in blood and with the sky turned off. Even the daftly blatant model-work - that little Martian train blitzing along the track - is curiously effective, although it is worth mentioning that Carpenter's practical effects haven't shown any improvement over Paul Voerhoeven's almost identically fake locomotive in his own Mars extravaganza, Total Recall, from over ten years before. Both look exactly like a new Thomas The Tank Engine playset from Hell's latest toy catalogue, but this is still a nice concept of an iron-clad bullet-train barrelling across an arid, alien landscape - it is the kind of uniquely beautiful image that used to adorn many an SF novel.

    And there is the generous gore quotient. Often cited in the same breath as the likes of Dario Argento, George Romero, Cronenberg or Raimi, John Carpenter is not actually a gory filmmaker, or rather a maker of gory films. Okay, there is The Thing, which does take gloop, grue and bodily disintegration and assimilation to entirely new levels, but it is not a traditionally violent tale of blood and guts. Nor is the killing spree of Michael Myers particularly nasty in the usually arterial-spraying sense. But with his childlike spirit unleashed on the barren, moral wasteland of a possessed Mars, Carpenter seems to positively thrive on fountains of blood, strewn body parts and decapitations as though ratings and certificates have lost all their meaning. With able support from FX gurus Bob Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, the champions of KNB, Ghosts Of Mars offers an agreeable array of spurting stumps, pierced latex and CG-aided head-loppings.

    But, perhaps this is all too little, too late.

    So, to wrap up this sorry mess, Ghosts Of Mars is a dud, and no mistake. And, looking at it now, even with more charitable eyes and a genuine desire to be forgiving, it still seems like the steaming pile of Martian crud that it did first time around. Perhaps I can now make allowances for it's tawdry feel, it's blatant disregard for logic, it's easily lampooned caricatures and it's un-disguisable lack of budget, but Carpenter's ode to his own Precinct 13 is so terribly structured and utterly devoid of either personality or resolution that I cannot give him the benefit of the doubt for his misinformed intentions to revisit that claustrophobic classic of nail-gnawing tension. Everything that made his 70's urban Western so good is missing from this hackneyed, memory-bounced mishmash. But what is worse to consider is the fact that, watching this, we are witnessing the uncaring attitude of a filmmaker who no longer loves what he does, for Ghosts Of Mars is delivered with no passion, no flair and absolutely no reason for existing.

    Incredibly poor and a thorough waste of everyone's time. Any self-respecting Ghost of Mars would be turning in his grave.

    Please bear in mind that this PR copy has been received well in advance of the disc's October release date, and with no UK cover image available, I have had to use the US version.