The Mars movies keep coming and they aren’t getting any better. In Ghosts of Mars, director John Carpenter aims for neither the operatic emotionalism of Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars nor the Star Trek-style message-making of Red Planet. Carpenter is a pulp sensibility to the core, and his take on our neighboring planet is meant to be pure, kinetic action with only the bare minimum of characterization and expository detail.
The feeble story plays out like the mutant offspring of Carpenter’s version of The Thing, Night of the Living Dead, and a Marilyn Manson concert. The year is 2176, and the colonization of Mars is underway. A process called "terraforming" is nearly complete, giving the red planet a thin but breathable atmosphere. A title card informs us that the Martian settlement is "matriarchal," but Carpenter and co-screenwriter Larry Sulkis don’t seem to know what to do with this information beyond concocting generic kick-butt action heroines for Natasha Henstridge and Pam Grier to play.
Henstridge (Species) and Grier (Jackie Brown) are the leaders of a police task force dispatched to mining colony Shining Canyon for a prisoner transfer. The prisoner in question is a dangerous killer with the improbable moniker Desolation Williams, and is played by Ice Cube in a performance that pushes his glowering skills to their very limits. Also along for the ride is Guy Ritchie regular Jason Statham as Henstridge’s right-hand man, Jericho Butler. Butler apparently didn’t get the memo about the whole matriarchal society bit, as he sees this tense and perilous mission as a perfect opportunity to try and get into Henstridge’s pants. "Maybe I’d sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth," she tells him, "but we’re not on Earth." That’s as good as it gets, folks.
As it turns out, Desolation Williams isn’t such a bad guy after all. He’s only been fighting back against the hapless miners whose bodies have been taken over by the ghosts of a long-vanished Martian civilization. The motives of these extinct natives are not elaborated upon – we’re left to assume they have a darn good reason for turning the colonists into a bunch of Alice Cooper lookalikes with a taste for decapitation and self-mutilation. Williams and the cops join forces to battle the killer zombies and avoid being possessed themselves.
What follows is the sort of undifferentiated action melange that makes minutes seem like hours. Unlike earlier Carpenter spectacles like The Thing and They Live, which exploited a similar alien possession gimmick, there’s never a lick of suspense as to whether a given character has been taken over by the Martian phantoms. The director seems more interested in gory effects than keeping track of his story, which really shouldn’t have been too difficult given its bare-bones nature. But if Ghosts of Mars is too elemental, it’s also all too aware of its own camp value. This is the kind of movie where the sight of a colleague’s head impaled on a spike surrounded by insane miners slicing open their own hands provokes a character to announce helpfully, "We’ve got a situation here!" Later, Henstridge ponders aloud: "What would happen if we blew up the nuclear power station? I mean, there’d be a big explosion, right?" Hmm…a big explosion in a dumb, formulaic action picture? I think you can count on it, ma’am.
If he’d been born a decade or two earlier, Carpenter would no doubt have thrived in the 50’s and 60’s, churning out sci-fi/horror quickies for the drive-in market. As it is he’s made more than his share of entertaining schlock over the years; everything from the seminal slasher flick Halloween to the sweet-tempered E.T. knockoff Starman to the grungy thriller Escape from New York. Even lesser efforts like They Live and In the Mouth of Madness were crafted with enough conviction and quirky charm to qualify as guilty pleasures. Ghosts of Mars gives us Carpenter on auto-pilot; despite its freak show villains and desperate techno/metal score, it’s a square and routine clunker that could have been made anytime in the last twenty years.
Between this latest trio of Mars pictures and those other recent black holes Battlefield: Earth and Planet of the Apes, the more conspiracy-minded among us might begin to suspect a Hollywood plot to undermine the future of our space program. Who knows, a few more of these interstellar turkeys and we may end up with an entire generation of Americans who’ll never want to set foot off the planet as long as they live.