John Carpenter has never made a good film. He’s made several movies that are so bad they’re almost good, but that’s not the same thing.
The venerated action-horror auteur has added 14 major-studio pictures to his résumé since 1978’s Halloween, but 23 years later, that slasher classic seems like 90 minutes of foreplay for a payoff that never arrives. Carpenter has always been better with ideas than follow-throughs; he’s all concept and no execution. He never tries for an A-plus when a B-movie will do.
We saw the same thing in Escape from New York, his other supposed classic. Kurt Russell is given the enormous task of breaking into a massive city-prison, and then does it with almost ridiculous ease. Perhaps the best third act he ever wrote was in 1987’s lesser-known Prince of Darkness, and that movie’s first two acts were so bad that few people made it to the end.
That shouldn’t be a problem with Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter’s latest venture in which he serves as director, writer and cheesy synthesizer music composer. It’s a sci-fi horror thriller set on Mars in 2176, when a matriarchal society is in the midst of establishing life on the red planet. We’re on the same Mars as the one in Total Recall—all mining camps and darkness and monolithic transport vehicles silently going nowhere.
Natasha Henstridge, in a role originally intended for Courtney Love, plays Melanie Ballard, a police officer of some sort who’s been assigned to visit one of these remote mining camps to retrieve a reportedly crazy prisoner named Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). The story, told in flashback, begins when Melanie and her commanding officer (Pam Grier) leave with only a new lieutenant named Jericho (Jason Statham, from director Guy Ritchie’s films) and two rookies under their command to retrieve the most dangerous guy on Mars.
When they arrive at the camp (which looks a whole lot like a movie soundstage, complete with backdrops resembling Bryce Canyon), they discover that almost everybody is dead—and not just deceased, but hanging from the ceilings with their heads cut off. Most of those remaining alive, led by a guy who looks like Glenn Danzig dressed up as Dee Snider, are holding vaguely Satanic rituals that even Marilyn Manson would think were a bit goofy. Desolation quickly becomes an ally (which echoes last year’s Pitch Black, a much better film) as our heroes try to fight crazy with crazy.
It’s all silliness, but it’s also an intriguing setup. Carpenter has written an inventive, non-linear screenplay that fares quite well in the early going. We soon learn that the cause of all this hubbub is a variation on Prince of Darkness … but of course, the resolution is the film’s most disappointing aspect.
When Carpenter gets to the point where additional complications or even coherent resolutions should fall, he has no idea what to do. Instead, it almost seems as though chance takes over. He throws in two key twists that make absolutely no sense at all, and then there’s the final scene, which makes less sense than everything in the previous 90 minutes put together, but hey. Ghosts of Mars works diligently to create a fairly frightening atmosphere of sci-fi doom, and then does nothing with it. With the exception of Melanie and Desolation, Carpenter’s main characters show no signs of humanity. They’re emotionless drones who don’t even have the good sense to wet themselves in terror when hundreds of painted, screaming maniacs come running at them with swords. When people die—and almost everybody dies—we don’t feel for them because they don’t seem to care themselves.
Fortunately, it’s all anchored by a strong performance from Henstridge, who might be taken seriously as an actress if she didn’t look like a Scandinavian supermodel. She’s really quite talented, with a good ear for the nuances of dialogue and an expressive face. But like Brad Pitt, her almost creepily perfect beauty stamps her as a bimbo before she has the chance to prove otherwise—of course, playing a naked, horny alien in the two Species films also had something to do with it. Here, she spends her time fending off Jericho’s advances (“Maybe I’d sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth, but we’re not on Earth”) and showing off her ass-kicking skills.
Ice Cube is his usual glowering self as the antihero, and he’s actually got a bit of chemistry with Henstridge. They’re the brightest spots on a film that frustrates us with wasted potential—though if you’ve followed Carpenter’s long career, you’d know that this is the only kind of film he makes.
Ghosts of Mars HH (R) Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube and Jason Statham.