Film Torments: John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001)

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JUST in time for the end of Halloween, Jozef tackles a piece of garbage made by one of the most respected cult mavericks of our time.

John Carpenter, one of the Masters of Horror. The auteur behind Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live; during the 70s and 80s, he was an unstoppable force of will often writing, directing and sound-tracking his own films. Seriously, go to IMDb, right now, and look up this man’s filmography, he was incredible, when you put him and Kurt Russell together, it was (almost) always magical (I say almost, Escape from LA was only half a good film). Then, in 2001 he made Ghosts of Mars, a movie that ended up like an Asylum Films version of Pitch Black, Total Recall and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome all at once. Suffice to say, that is not a compliment to it.

John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars stars Natasha Henstridge of Species fame as Lt. Melanie Ballard, part of a crew tasked with transporting a dangerous prisoner named Demolition Williams as played by Ice Cube with all the bullish subtlety of the muddy freight train they travel in (or indeed all the subtlety of a character named DEMOLITION FRICKIN’ WILLIAMS). In case you hadn’t guessed, they’re also on Mars. And there’s ghosts possessing people and causing people to act like they’re a bunch of weird cannibals. Also, Jason Statham.

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It feels like a lot of the problems with the film stems from a feeling of being tossed off. Originally it was going to be a third part of the Escape From… trilogy but then the second one flopped, then it was retooled and after much consideration, was going to be a vehicle for Courtney Love but then she dropped out. John Carpenter had wanted the aforementioned Statham for the role of Demolition Williams but the studio demanded a bigger name so he was bumped down to the role of ‘sexually predatory but presumably charming police gun person’.

Oddly the film is somehow both completely disconnecting from itself and too intimately connecting to the idea of itself. It’s like Carpenter really felt he had a good idea but then couldn’t be bothered to do anything with it.

I mean bad sci-fi films are par for the course, you know what to expect: wooden acting (as delivered by a wasted crew of pros including Pam Grier and Clea Duvall), bad dialogue, wonky sets, wonkier green screen but you might hope that the man who had possibly the greatest fight scene in film history in They Live would at least be able to produce some good action scenes. No, in a word. I can’t entirely comment on if there’s some spark of genius in the fight choreography because the editing is so incomprehensible that it’s hard to tell.

On a plus side, I have no idea when they used stunt doubles because as I say, for the most part I had no idea what was going on when they weren’t talking. Not that I’d desire for the characters to start talking again because every time they open their mouths it’s either uncomfortable exposition or just swearing at each other because that’s how you make them look tough.

This isn’t Mamet, there’s no rhythm, no reason behind any of the profanity, it’s just because in a hyper-testostirilised world that’s what constitutes hard boiled dialogue. I don’t remember a single sentence Demolition Williams had that didn’t end in ‘motherfucker’. Brilliant work from all involved.

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It’s probably an odd choice that they constantly use ‘motherfucker’ considering the film seems to envision itself as a radical feminist text. Set in a future in which Mars is mostly terraformed and Earth is governed by a matriarchal leadership, it seems to attempt to give females ‘strong roles’ by making the crew of this police force given over to three females, including Pam Grier (I felt a need to mention this again. Pam Grier, Pam Fucking Grier, Jackie Brown this film is not) and marginalising Statham even though it also makes him the most fleshed out side character in the film, though that might just be because Statham seems like the only one having any fun.

It mistakes ‘strong’ female characters for women with guns, the point is not to just give power but to give women characters as well, to not try and make them just be facsimiles of an idea but to actually write for them, give them something to say and reasons for what they do. Did I mention that at pretty much every turn in the final act, Demolition Williams – the dangerous prisoner and apparently meant to be audience hero because he’s a violent bankrobber but not a murderer, saves Lt. Ballard – the meant to be  competent Special Ops team leader.

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The film has some good moments, it’s hard to fully hate any film that the second act involves launching a nuclear weapon at ghosts, every so often the film has a little spark of inspired lunacy that is so incredible it reminds you that John Carpenter wasn’t always making stuff like this and the soundtrack has some vintage ambient electronics when  he stops letting Anthrax and Buckethead add pointless metallic noodling on top.

But overall, it’s not even a film that really suggests it could have been any better, this feels like the best this film could ever be and that’s just depressing because I love John Carpenter’s output beyond this film but even a genius can make a complete dud. My recommendation, learn from my mistakes, don’t watch this, go off and watch Big Trouble in Little China, watch Prince of Darkness, if you can find it watch Carpenter and Russell’s three hour Elvis film but don’t watch this, maintain some respect for the man that at one brief point, had perfected horror. Then he made Ghosts of Mars.

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