[box cover]

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Joanna Cassidy,
Jason Statham, Pam Grier, and Clea Duvall

Written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter
Directed by John Carpenter

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Review by Joe Barlow                    

In the year 2176 AD, the face of technology marches ever onward. The planet Mars has been no stranger to change over the past 200 years: Thanks to the miracle of terraforming, the red planet now has the ability to sustain human life. Roughly 640,000 colonists call the dusty rock home, fighting to tame the harsh frontier.

In the isolated outpost of Chryse City, a badly damaged commuter train returns to the station on auto-pilot. Investigators soon discover that the vehicle is deserted, save for a Martian police officer named Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who has been severely wounded and chained to a bed railing. Demanding an immediate report, the matriarchal Martian rulers hold an exploratory hearing. This is the setting for most of the story, which is told in flashback, as Ballard narrates the events that preceded her strange arrival in Chryse City.

Ballard spins quite a tale, one which the committee has a great deal of trouble swallowing. She had been sent, along with her commanding officer Helena (Pam Grier) and a host of other policemen, to Shining Canyon Station — a place rather like Star Wars's Mos Eisley, but without the pulse — to supervise the transfer of prisoner James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) to a more secure locale. Williams, a fiendishly intelligent criminal mastermind, is suspected of murdering six people and requires close supervision lest he escape — hence the large detail of police.

Once inside the jail, however, Ballard and her companions find several anomalies, not the least of which is the complete absence of all the guards; the inmates, literally, have taken over the asylum. Arguably even more bizarre is the discovery of Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), a woman who voluntarily committed herself to the prison because, she said, jail was "the last safe place" for her. When prompted for an explanation, she reveals that a strange force has been unleashed on the surface of the red planet, something with the ability to possess a person's mind and body, converting them into a helpless puppet controlled by an unseen force... a Ghost of Mars. Is Williams behind the disappearance of the prison staff, or do Whitlock's claims have any basis in fact? This is what Ballard and her companions must find out. (Hint: Look at the title of the movie.)

*          *          *

Although brimming with expensive-looking costumes and sets, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars has a darker, grittier feel than much of the director's recent work; in terms of tone, it's far more similar to his sparse Assault on Precinct 13 than, say, In the Mouth of Madness. The film is part ghost story and part war flick, and contains a great deal of suspense and action. Or, more correctly, it contains a great deal of suspense followed by a great deal of action. If you've seen Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Til Dawn, you'll understand that description: The first half of the story, which sets the plot in motion, is primarily concerned with establishing a dark, brooding, atmosphere full of intrigue and mystery. The movie's second half, on the other hand, is concerned with blood, death, quick editing, and lots of running and jumping. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but the mindless (and at times overwhelming) amount of action and blood can catch viewers offguard if they aren't prepared.

As always, Carpenter is confident and sure behind the camera, giving us a film that looks consistently exquisite, if uncomplicated from a technical standpoint. He's the consummate cinematic craftsman, known to spend insane amounts of time on any given shot in order to get it photographed in exact accordance with his wishes. But even with such meticulous preparation and attention to detail, it's difficult to pinpoint where this film ranks in Carpenter's canon: Ghosts of Mars is not Halloween or The Thing — heck, it's not even Vampires — but at the same time, one gets the impression that the director wasn't trying to best his other films. There are none of the usual Carpenter trademarks that die-hard fans like myself have come to expect, including highly stylistic camera movements and the use of long, unbroken takes. Ghosts, in many ways, feels more like homage to the genres of the past, including the western picture (Carpenter's acknowledged favorite genre), and the beloved zombie flicks of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, etc.).

The film's excellent art and production design cannot be overpraised. The lighting paints the dusty plains of Mars in a strikingly beautiful way — albeit a cold, harsh beauty, tinged with decrepit locales. Filmed entirely at night, the movie's set-design emphasizes the stark loneliness and isolation of the titular locale, with red-tinged dust clinging to every conceivable surface, and yet even amongst the blood and carnage of the final act, the planet's appearance is never anything less than haunting (no pun intended). The sense of Mars as a real place came through quite clearly here — no small feat.

Carpenter is a master (or at least a frequent employer) of abrupt, ambiguous endings, and Ghosts of Mars continues his tradition of crafting a conclusion that raises more questions than it answers. Although this lack of closure is often unsatisfying on the first viewing, it does give Carpenter's best work a tenacity that far surpasses other filmmakers' more prosaic offerings. But Ghosts of Mars is a little disappointing because it spends so much of its time implying closure and resolution (via its use of flashbacks), and then not following up, or even explaining the origin of the things we see. It's difficult to decide if the film's final scene is left ambiguous for dramatic effect, or merely because Carpenter and Screen Gems hope to spin the story off into a sequel. It seems like the wrong choice to this reviewer, but it's a minor flaw in an otherwise enjoyable — if imperfect — action/adventure/horror/sci-fi romp.

Be warned, however: there is rather a lot of blood and gore here (including a number of graphic decapitation sequences) that could potentially upset more sensitive viewers. Factor this into your renting or purchasing decision.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar has released Ghosts of Mars is a handsome Special Edition DVD, although the platter feels a little too thin on supplements to warrant such a moniker. The disc contains two featurettes — one detailing the creation of the film's special effects, and one focusing on the musical score (composed by Carpenter but performed by heavy metal band Anthrax, with a little help from guitarist Steve Vai). Fans will also find a behind-the-scenes "Video Diary" (nothing more than some unnarrated outtakes, all strung together without rhyme or reason).

Rounding out the goodies — and partially redeeming the supplements section — is a hilarious but completely uninformative commentary track from Carpenter and star Natasha Henstridge, recorded in August of 2001. Relatively little is said about the movie, but hearing the warm interactions of the pair as they good naturedly tease, insult, and shamelessly flirt with each other is a great deal of fun. Natasha spends a fair amount of time discussing her (then) pregnancy, and there's an amusing tangent as Carpenter explains the purpose of commentary tracks to his leading lady.

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is presented in a beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer (2.40:1) with a pan-and-scan version offered on the same disc, and DD 5.1 audio. Video quality is gorgeous, although some annoying color bleeding during the end credits makes the text extremely difficult to read.

— Joe Barlow

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