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Posts Tagged ‘Ghosts of Mars’

Making any kind of film, even a bad one, is quite difficult. Relatively speaking, though, it’s much easier to make one good film than a whole series of them, which may be why the cinematic landscape is littered with the remains of those who made an impressive directorial debut and then quickly ran out of puff. Many people just don’t have the legs.

I wonder if this is the category into which we should put John Carpenter. Any decent history of American horror and SF movies would have to make a clear acknowledgement of Carpenter’s massive influence on both genres – providing the model for Alien, sort of, in Dark Star, then inventing the modern slasher movie in Halloween, and creating some sort of masterpiece with his version of The Thing – but the fact remains that after a brilliantly productive first decade, since the mid-80s Carpenter seems to have gone off the boil in a fairly definitive way. He himself apparently blames it on the commercial failure of The Thing; I still think there are good movies after that (for instance Starman and They Live), just precious few of them, and none after about 1990.

So approaching a latterday Carpenter film is always a somewhat charged experience. Could this be the one where he gets his mojo back? Possibly, but you know deep down that it’s almost certainly not going to happen and you brace yourself for a once-major talent groping about trying to recapture past glories. Some times more literally than others, which brings us to Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, from 2001: something which even the director found such a gruelling experience he didn’t make another film for nearly a decade.

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Set in the late 22nd century, the film is set on (duh) Mars, which has been colonised and terraformed (this seems to be a form of stealth terraforming where the appearance of the place hasn’t changed at all but everyone can now miraculously breathe and not freeze to death). The structure of the film is somewhat complex, something we will come back to, but concerns the travails of a squad of cops sent off to a remote mining outpost to collect wanted criminal Desolation Jones (Ice Cube).

In charge of the squad is Pam Grier, with Natasha Henstridge second-in-command, and technical support coming from a lecherous sergeant played by Jason Statham (and you should now understand why it is I was bothering to watch this film in the first place). On arrival at the camp they find the place initially deserted, but then discover large numbers of mutilated corpses, and a few colonists who are acting, shall we say, somewhat oddly.

‘It’s as though they were possessed!’ observes Henstridge’s character, which is the script’s remarkably subtle way of foreshadowing the fact that the miners will all turn out to have become possessed. This is courtesy of some recently-uncorked ancient Martian spirits who are big on orgies of violence (perhaps the faintest shades of Quatermass and the Pit here). Unfortunately for the cops and a few other survivors they encounter, the Martians and their hosts are still around, and Henstridge soon finds herself leading the others in a battle to survive.

Let’s cut to the chase: Ghosts of Mars is a really bad film, so bad that I actually considered bailing out of it halfway through, which I almost never do. What’s not very obvious, however, is just why it should be such a stinker: it’s the kind of genre mash-up (SF-horror-action-western) which Carpenter had shown some facility for in the past, while the plot itself recalls other scenarios with which he had had considerable success – remote outpost menaced by amorphous alien threat, and cops and crooks besieged by an army of fanatical psychos. So why does it fall so flat?

Well, it looks painfully cheap, for one thing, especially the special effects, and the cinematography is like something from a TV programme: it’s colourful but flat, and not exactly atmospheric. Most of the rest of the film operates on the same barely-competent level. Major characters die off-screen, and when the principals figure out very early on that killing one of the possessed miners just releases its Martian passenger to hop into someone else, do they stop to consider that this may require a change of approach? No, it’s shotguns and hand grenades all the way regardless! The story is bizarrely structured, with a barely-necessary frame story about Henstridge reporting back to her superiors, but various other characters within that launching into recollections of their own. At one point, and I think I’ve got this straight in my head, we are watching a flashback inside a flashback inside a flashback, for no very essential reason. (It looks like the concept of the second draft didn’t make it to Mars.)

Most irksome of all is the fact that top billing goes to Ice Cube, who gives a performance that seems at best disinterested and at worst tranquilised. The character of Desolation Jones, wanted criminal who teams up with a cop against marauding psychos, is perhaps not a million miles away from that of Napoleon Wilson, wanted criminal who teams up with a cop against marauding psychos in Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, and if you want to appreciate just how duff Cube’s performance is, compare it to that of Darwin Joston in the earlier film: Joston is witty and charismatic, while Cube just sounds like he’s reading out his lines off cue cards. What makes this even more annoying is that Cube was inserted at the insistence of the studio, displacing the actor who was originally cast – Jason Statham. Now that’s what I call studio interference.

Oh well. This was very early days for the great man, though – he still has a surprising amount of hair – and in any case Henstridge is clearly playing the lead role (it is, needless to say, that of ass-kicking babe). Nevertheless – and I know I am biased – Mr S still looks like someone going places, and he has more presence than most of the other people in the cast.

What else can one say about Ghosts of Mars? Well, I have to say that for a bad film, it’s either proved surprisingly influential within the genre, or else is tapping into some other source of ideas with which I am not familiar, for watching its army of crazed, self-mutilating psychos I was immediately reminded of similar menaces from Serenity and certain episodes of Doctor Who from the 2000s. Possibly a coincidence, possibly not.

Ghosts of Mars seems content to sit very firmly within the boundaries of genre convention, anyway. No boats are being pushed out, no risks taken. As mentioned, the main character is that stock figure of low-budget genre action movies, the ass-kicking babe, and this to some extent obscures the fact that the single most interesting thing about the film is its decision to cast women as every authority figure in it, from the squad leader, to Henstridge’s superior back at base, to the scientist who fills in the back story. I can’t help but think, though, that the film somehow messes this up by pointing out from the start that Mars has a ‘matriarchal society’ – the message presumably being ‘relax, guys, things are still normal back on Earth’ – and also by suggesting that at least some of the senior women are predatory lesbians.

The fact that Ghosts of Mars can’t even get a relatively minor piece of colour detail like this right is, though, quite indicative. A bit of a Hollywood maxim has developed that films about, or set on Mars, are virtually guaranteed to lose money – this one, Mars Needs Moms, Mission to Mars, John Carter, and so on – almost as if the fabled curse of the Red Planet had spread beyond NASA to the film industry. I suspect this is not down to vague astrological influences so much as simple bad film-making, and this at least Ghosts of Mars is a very good example of: it is inept in virtually every single department.

 

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