Carpenter’s career was starting to look a bit rocky by this time and both this film and the slightly earlier (1998) Vampires tend to polarise audiences. After Ghosts of Mars his career more or less faded away.
Mars in 2176 is in the early stages of colonisation. Terraforming has produced an environment that is barely liveable, the planet now has a population of 640,000 and is ruled by a matriarchy. Mining seems to be the main industry. Most of the colonists bitterly regret signing the contracts that brought them to Mars and would leave if they could. It’s not exactly a utopia. I love the fact that the main form of transportation is trains, and the inhabitants of Mars still use real money.
A train arrives at the station at the main city, Chryse. Apart from its load of ore it contains a five-member police squad who had been detailed to bring in a murder suspect from the mining town of Shining Canyon. But now there’s only one person alive on the train, Police Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge). She is called before a hearing to explain what happened to the rest of the squad, the train crew and the prisoner. The story of the film is then told in flashback, with lots of flashbacks within flashbacks.
Everything went fine until the train left them at Shining Canyon.
They find the place apparently deserted. The few people left alive are either crazed lunatics or seriously frightened. Even the prisoner, notorious criminal Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), is not exactly easy in his mind.
It seems that everyone has gone crazy. Homicidally crazy. The chopping people’s heads off kind of crazy. As to what caused everyone to start lopping each other’s heads off, that remains a mystery (although it does get explained later). It seems that Mars does not want to be colonised and is taking its revenge.
The five cops, along with Desolation and his three gang members and a lady scientist (who eventually reveals the secret behind the disasters), are under siege in Shining Canyon and they will have to fight their way to the train when it arrives back at Shining Canyon.
The movie starts well, with a slow atmospheric buildup as the five cops discover one disturbing fact after another. Then the movie devolves into a zombie apocalypse gorefest, although this being a John Carpenter film it is at least done with some style.
The cast is certainly interesting. Natasha Henstridge is OK as the very serious non-nonsense but troubled cop who copes with her life by escaping into drug-fuelled dreams. Ice Cube is pretty good as Desolation Williams. It’s fun to see Pam Grier as the leader of the police squad, the lesbian Commander Braddock (whose main interest seems to be trying to seduce Melanie Ballard). Sergeant Jericho (Jason Statham) shares Commander Braddock’s obsession with getting into Melanie’s pants.
It’s the characters who are the problem. I don’t have a particular problem with Natasha Henstridge’s acting. What she does she does well enough. It’s what she’s chosen to do with the character (or what Carpenter asked her to do with the character) that is the problem. Melanie is a real ice queen. She appears to have no emotions and no sexual feelings. She is incredibly detached and remote. Her drug usage may well be connected with this but that possibility is never explored. Her motivations for escaping into drug dreams are never explored. It’s an interesting performance but it leaves the film without an emotional centre. We see everything through Melanie’s eyes but it’s as if she’s just a recording device. We have no idea what she is thinking, or feeling.
Unfortunately Ice Cube takes a similar approach with his characterisation of Desolation Williams. Why does Desolation decide to throw in his lot with the cops even though he hates and mistrusts them? Does he have some feelings for Melanie? That would explain his actions, but we aren’t shown any evidence that would support that theory. Maybe she reminds him of a woman he once cared about? Again, we’re shown nothing to indicate this might be the case. He simply goes from being a bad guy to being a good guy. There’s nothing wrong with Ice Cube’s performance but the part is badly underwritten.
We know more about Commander Braddock. We know she’s a lesbian and she wants to get Melanie into bed. But that’s all we know about her. Apart from that she’s a closed book. We don’t even get any sense of whether she’s a good cop or not.
The minor characters are just there to get killed (which is not a spoiler since we know at the beginning who is going to survive and who isn’t). There are a couple of death scenes that might have had an impact but the characters are such zeroes that the viewer is unlikely even to remember their names. Consequently we don’t care when they get killed. And none of the other characters cares when one of their own gets killed.
What this movie really needed was Snake Plissken. I believe that at one stage Carpenter considered making it the third Snake Plissken film. Kurt Russell would at least have breathed some life into the film.
I do like the look of this movie, with everything red or in reddish shades. The locations (mostly in New Mexico) are excellent and brilliantly utilised. The movie has the right atmosphere. Ghosts of Mars borrows heavily from lots of other Carpenter films (everything from Escape from New York to Vampires to Assault on Precinct 13 to The Thing).
This is not a terrible movie by any means. It’s quite fun in its own way. But, like Lieutenant Melanie Ballard, it’s detached and remote. There’s a fair amount of excitement but it just doesn’t get the viewer really engaged. It’s frustrating because the ideas aren’t bad.
The DVD includes an audio commentary by John Carpenter (who is always fun to listen to) and Natasha Henstridge, plus a number of other extras.
Ghosts of Mars is worth a rental.