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Ghosts of Mars (2001) – Carpenter countdown #14

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We're out of the 1990s for a film that is certainly watchable but which could and should have been better. It would be his last feature and his last film to get a theatrical release for nine years – and The Ward was straight to video in the US.

Concept: 'Let's remake Assault on Precinct 13 – not that we'll admit it – and set it on Mars.'

It's 2176 and Mars is being terra-formed. Something has been uncovered in South Valley and is moving towards the main city, 'leaving behind only silence and death'. A train on autopilot from the valley arrives at the main city, with just Natasha Henstridge, handcuffed and asleep, on board. It turns out that she's a police officer, part of the team sent to bring in Ice Cube as notorious criminal Napoleon Wilson Desolation Williams, and the story is told via flashback as she gives evidence to the inquiry. When they got there, the place was a mess, with lots of bits of dead bodies, and only Cube and a few other people in the jail are alive. There are a few others, but they're now possessed by something and before long Grier's head is on a spike and a couple of hundred LA gang members possessed miners are attacking the jail. Cops and criminals are forced to work together to survive against a foe you can't negotiate with. It turns out that a nearby mine uncovered remains of an ancient Martian civilization. When investigated, the ghosts came out, possessing the humans. When their host is killed, they look for a new host. At one point Henstridge is one, but it turns out that her altered states drug of choice drives the ghosts out. But it's soon back to the shooting as they escape, go back to explode a nearby nuclear reaction, escape, and meet up again when the ghosts reach the main city on Mars…

What's good: The cast. Amazingly, Natasha Henstridge was brought in a week before shooting started and we should all be grateful that the original choice, Courtney Love, couldn't do it. Ice Cube is good, Jason Statham gets to do macho prick once more, and I can't think of a bad casting choice.

The cinematography is very good, the effects are fine, and I also like the script's sense of humour. In particular, Cube's sidekicks ('Uno, Dos and Tres') aren't that clever and get treated with the lack of respect they deserve by everyone.

There's an interesting approach to drugs – Henstridge uses 'clear', a mix of LSD and ecstasy, and this saves her.

What's not so good: I'm almost tempted to restore the 'bad' section for the first problem, the music. It opens with a very typical Carpenter theme over the main titles – it could easily make the 'John Carpenter's Greatest' compilation. The music for most of the first fifty minutes (the build up) is fine, but whenever we see the possessed (much of the rest) it's some awful heavy metal played by Anthrax. I can almost get it, artistically: the ghost possessed are noisy and nasty.. so let's make the music noisy and… But it's a distraction, not an enhancement.

The nature of the threat could have been better. The ghosts are insubstantial on their own, and we see that they can be exorcised by recreational chemistry. Is that built on? No. Is the description of the place somewhere where everyone goes to do drugs? Yes… so why didn't more of them escape infection? There's no negotiating with the possessed and they're a dangerous foe, but they're not actually frightening in the way that they could have been. It's usually a bad idea to show too much of the monster, and here, we see the lead possessed, 'Big Daddy Mars', but he doesn't get to do much except scream and point the rest of the possessed the right way. It'd have been a lot more interesting to show armed Americans and Brits in uniforms trying to police a desert state and being assaulted by oh, the rational Mars Liberation Front fanatics, with the 'It's their planet… we are the invaders aliens' tagline and realisation that the stars come to.

Some of the ideas in the script, like the matriarchal society are thrown away – it's almost as if it's only an excuse for Grier to make a pass at Henstridge, because everyone is expected to think that women in charge = lesbianism.

The physics aren't great either. There's a mention of the issues around breathing a not-yet-Earth standard atmosphere, and that a Martian year is about twice an Earth one, but you'd never know the gravity on Mars is less than 40% of that on Earth. You don't make a nuclear reactor into a bomb that easily either (the core would melt, creating a highly radioactive mess and cloud, rather than have a two mile blast radius), and the explosion is waaay too big on the orbital view.

Music: Credited to him alone. Arrggghhhh. See above. For some reason, the soundtrack album just has the main title, one ok track (from her tripping), and the crap. It'd be interesting to hear some of the build up music separately. I'd also love to have had a 'music only' audio option on the DVD, so you could use that to subtract most of it out of the film and replace it with something better.

Miscellany: Originally, this was going to be told as a linear story, starting with uncovering the ancients. It works better the way it was made.

This film apparently has Stratham's first screen kiss. No, I wouldn't either.

I cannot find Carpenter admitting this is a remade Assault anywhere. Is he really the only person on this planet who doesn't think that's what this is a remake of, or is this a contractual issue – having been paid for the remake rights, he can't say he remade it too?

Overall: According to IMDB.com's rating system, this is the worst Carpenter film by far with a shockingly low rating of 4.8 – half a point lower than the incredibly dire Village and awful Escape from LA, and a full point lower than the meh Memoirs. It's much better than that. It's far from his best, but it's a fun 'Western on Mars' action picture.

As I said, this section took a lot of shuffling about to get them in order. I am almost tempted to promote this one a slot or two – having watched it again for the first time in ages with commentary, I immediately watched it again again with the proper audio (and even the music didn't sound that bad!) It gets better over time. So thinking about it, one reason it's down here is that throughout the nadir of his nighties, I said that what someone should do is give him a little money and have him remake Assault, because it'd have to be good. Someone did, he did and it's not as good as Assault despite looking better. It felt like a personal insult when I first saw it.

TL;DR It's considerably better than the official remake, but argh, the music.

Film: 3/5
DVD: 4/5

A very good commentary with him and Natasha Henstridge being very chatty – even if you don't usually do commentaries, this one's worth listening to (and you get to escape the music!) At no point does either mention Assault although she does challenge him on the music. Features on the music, effects, and the desert night shoots in a gypsum mine with lots of red dye.

DVD, Blu-ray and soundtrack CD:

Written by Ian

June 13th, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

One Response to 'Ghosts of Mars (2001) – Carpenter countdown #14'

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  1. Interestingly, this is by far the most popular post for spambots to attempt to comment on. So it does have fans, even if not many of them are human 🙂

    Ian

    4 Jul 11 at 7:52 am

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