Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ghosts of Mars

Many reviews compare John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001) to an earlier effort of his: Assault on Precinct 13. There are enough similarities between the two pictures to warrant the comparison. Both are siege movies in which a ragtag group of cops and criminals hole up in a jail against a ruthless, overwhelming enemy, incorporating elements of the Howard Hawks western, Rio Bravo. One is set in contemporary Los Angeles in which the enemy is an inner-city gang while the other takes place in a future society on Mars where the heroes battle vengeful, long-dormant Martian spirits that possess the living.

But I'd like to offer another Carpenter movie to compare Ghosts of Mars to: They Live. While the plot might not have as many parallels as AoP13, They Live is much like Ghosts of Mars in that it is a cheesy, sci-fi action piece with aliens as the threat and some pretty cool action scenes. Both movies also offer the potential for some intriguing sci-fi ideas and commentary, although ultimately neither film does much with them. The difference is They Live is a thoughtful, witty movie for its first half before turning into an action fest; Ghosts of Mars wastes little time in telling the viewers just what kind of movie they can expect.

In the year 2176, Earth has colonized its red neighbor and is currently terraforming the Martian atmosphere. Here, society is matriachal, run by an organization known as the Matronage. The Matronage, concerned by a growing series of incidents, interviews Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a cop and the only person found on a ghost train. Ballard tells how her team (which includes Pam Grier, Jason Statham, and Clea DuVall) was sent to Shining Canyon to collect notorious prisoner "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) for a murder charge, but the group ended up teaming up with their charge and his gang when resurrected Martian spirits possessed the bodies of hundreds of miners, transforming them into bloodthirsty maniacs whose favorites hobbies include dismemberment, crude body piercings, and slaughtering humans. The humans, their numbers dwindling, soon became trapped in the Shining Canyon jail and were forced to try to fight their way out.

If you expect a serious, hard science fiction story about the challenges of making an alien planet hospitable, the implications of a society run and dominated  by women, or an alien race that exists on another plane of existence, look elsewhere. If you want a piece of pulp sci-fi in which Ice Cube mows down swarms of zombified ghouls with a pair of machine guns aimed in opposite directions and in which hubcaps are crudely sharpened to decapitate victims, Ghosts of Mars is the movie for you. Carpenter embraces the B-movie trappings of his story for full effect, and the result is a loud, dumb, violent, goofy good time.

The one serious complaint I can lodge against the film is that it's not particularly scary. The possessed miners, especially their leader Big Daddy Mars, feel less like otherworldly creatures than they do like a rowdy crowd at a Marilyn Manson concert; sure, they practice some seriously gross self-mutilation and do some pretty nasty things to their victims, but they're mostly screams and hollers without much character or quirks to make them more memorable, and Carpenter, despite a few creepy moments and jump scares, shows too much when keeping them in the shadows might have been more effective.

What Carpenter does get right is the atmosphere, which is a neat cross between futuristic and retro, a combination of a space opera and a western. Everything is red, rusty, and dusty, and the glimpses of the life on Mars we see are suitably dirty and lived-in. In this future, characters still travel by train and weather balloons, police and outlaws have Mexican standoffs, and Ice Cube can say without irony that "The Woman" is keeping him down.  The action scenes aren't fancy, but they're fast-paced, bloody, and straightforward; line them up and knock them down, if you will.

The cast, to a degree hampered by the cornball dialogue and exposition, is fun for this type of picture. Statham, in an early supporting role as an experienced but sleazy cop, is the standout, stealing the scene every time he talks (and he has hair!). Cube is another example of the tough criminal antihero with a streak of honor like Snake Plissken or Napolean Wilson; he doesn't reach the heights of those other Carpenter characters, but he gets the job done. Henstridge, a last-minute replacement for Courtney Love, is solid as the center of authority, her best moment being when she puts one of Desolation's thugs in his place.

Carpenter also turns in a cool, chugging, grinding score with Anthrax, Buckethead, and Steve Vai turning up to play. This is also the only film I can think of that features a flashback within a flashback within another flashback.

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