John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars
2001, R, 98 min. Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Ice Cube, Clea Duvall, Pam Grier, Jason Staham, Natasha Henstridge, Lobo Sebastian.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 24, 2001
When John Carpenter was on Late Night With Conan O'Brien the other night, promoting his new film, the host turned to him and asked what Ghosts of Mars was about. Carpenter, grinning chummily, hesitated a second and then described it as “Ice Cube on Mars, kicking ass.” How true it is. Sadly, however, as intriguing as the prospect of former NWA rapper Cube essaying some of his thug life skills on the Angry Red Planet, it's not enough to sustain an entire film. Ghosts of Mars is Carpenter's most derivative film in a decade, and it's not just as if he were borrowing from others, either. This time the once-great (what happened?) horror auteur consistently rips off whole sequences from none other than himself; it's like watching a John Carpenter greatest-hits reel done by a rank amateur. Carpenter's fans (and I count myself solidly among their numbers) will be dismayed at just how much Ghosts of Mars echoes the director's previous works such as Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York, but truth be told, what this film most recalls is last year's Pitch Black, the Vin Diesel vehicle that is suddenly seeming to be a much better film than it actually was thanks to the weak echo Carpenter puts out here. Ice Cube plays “Demolition” Williams, a brother on another planet who's being picked up by a bevy of space cops, including former Species babe Henstridge and Guy Ritchie favorite Statham. Apparently, there's been some sort of slaughter at the Martian mining colony, and Demolition, as the only survivor, is to blame. As Henstridge and her team arrive to pick up their charge, a series of odd events -- decapitations, tribal warfare, that sort of thing -- begin to manifest themselves, until it becomes apparent that they're after the wrong man. A patently blameless Demoliton realigns his allegiances with his captors and together they battle it out with, well, a bunch of actors in bad Mad Max outfits and some serious body-modification issues. Mars isn't heaven, as Ray Bradbury wrote all those years ago, it's just the dumping ground for the galaxy's spiritual waste, and in Carpenter's film these ghosts of Mars are eager to get back in the body politic, even if they have to cut off Pam Grier's head and jam it on a stake to do so. The great Grier, as the space cops' erstwhile lesbian leader (I couldn't make this up if I tried, people), is sadly wasted here, tromping about in a floor-length leather duster and shouting abuse left and right -- it's almost a relief when Jackie Brown finally buys the farm, and that's never a good sign. Carpenter's script, written with longtime partner Larry Sulkis, is a flat-out mess, awash in silly action-hero dialogue that might have sounded fine coming from the mouth of Snake Plissken, but here sounds tired and trite. Ditto the film's ridiculous villains, who caper and leer and galumph about with crochet needles lodged in their faces (shades of Halloween) but appear no more threatening than your average reader of Piercing Fans International Quarterly. Ghosts of Mars' most disastrous misstep comes from its downright bizarre use of flashbacks (within flashbacks [within flashbacks]), a strange and often confusing conceit that works to no good effect and in retrospect seems to have been designed to keep the audience off-balance. It keeps you off balance, all right, but not enough to obscure the sad fact that Ghosts of Mars is a muddled, derivative disaster straight on through.