Visiting and Revisiting: Ghosts of Mars (2001) Pt. 2


This is the second of a two-part discussion about John Carpenter's 2001 would-be sci-fi/horror epic, Ghosts of Mars. To read the first part of this article, visit my pal Aaron Lowe's Working Dead Productions website at http://bit.ly/1OvyAwU.


PART II

Rik: That usual Carpenter spooky ambience plays well as the platoon enters the mining camp, wanders about, and slowly begins to realize that all is not right in this place. Less successful is the dialogue among the platoon members, especially any time one of the male members (played by a rather fresh in his career Jason Statham) thinks with his member whenever he is near Natasha Henstridge. His character is such a douchebag that it is remarkably upsetting when she actually starts to fall into his trap just before they are interrupted by a sudden attack. I wanted the film to cut back to the Inquisitor and have her ask Henstridge, “Really? That guy?” I get that the ladies do like Jason Statham, and that he has a lot of charisma, but not as played by his character in this film. Just a little too evidently a rapist waiting to happen, if he hadn’t already before the film.

While I understand that for some people the flashback structure can often take them out of the film, as it does ruin story points and telegraphs a lot of things for the audience, they mostly worked for me as I was watching the film. There were just enough moments early on where I was getting caught up enough I had to remind myself that this was a story being told by a narrator. It was an indicator to me that I had found myself actually involved in the story to a good measure. This mood went away, however, the further the film progressed. By the time that the Martian warriors were assembling and getting suited up for battle, I pretty much lost interest in the movie. I thought their look was so overwhelmed by clichés — the porcelain skin of their leader, the long hair, the tattoos, the self-mutilation, the strange piercings, that it really just looked like any regular day at a Hot Topic to me.

Aaron: I agree with you about Statham, who is not an actor I really love, but who does have a natural charisma that makes him seem comfortable at all times on screen. That charisma is almost entirely lacking here, and I can’t quite tell if that’s due to the character, or that he hadn’t quite transitioned into his action persona. And I also agree about the Martians, or at least how the humans look while possessed by the Martians. I think it’s the element of the film that most obviously marks it as a product of the early 2000s, as most of the warriors look like Marilyn Manson knock-offs. Even in 2001, when I was less critical of the film, I thought they looked faintly ridiculous. Henstridge in the commentary starts singing Marilyn Manson when the Martian warriors show up, and Carpenter merely remarks that he’s been hearing that a lot. Certainly the soundtrack doesn’t help, which features a lot of squealing guitars and generic power chord riffs.  

But beyond that, the way the Martians are presented and dealt with in the film is a bit odd. Basically, they are spirits that possess the humans, and killing any possessed human simply frees the ghost to possess someone else. This presents a great opportunity for dramatic tension; surrounded, outnumbered, and killing your enemy only makes them more dangerous. What do you do? Well, apparently you conveniently forget that killing them does no good, and you just start mowing them down with any improvised weapon you can find. This gives the ending, where the Martian ghost cloud begins overtaking Chryse, an odd sense of defeatism. Ice Cube shows up and throws a gun to Natasha Henstridge. The implication is that they’re heading off to kill a bunch of Martians, which as we’ve seen means they’ll probably end up slaughtering the entire city. Possibly the entire planet.

Rik: I have a longtime love for all things Frisbee, but even I could not buy into the weapon of choice of the Martian warriors: razor-edged, spinning discs that were equally proficient at lopping off the heads of opponents as they are clanging and ricocheting in a rather silly way off sets and props. I laughed out loud each time some of the good guys would suddenly find themselves under attack by some of these weapons. To my eye, they were simply shiny Frisbees, and sometimes I had to rewind a tad to make sure that there weren’t beach balls being kicked at them as well because of how much things would just fly and bounce across the screen. (If there were beach balls, this film would have gotten a perfect rating from me.)

I hated the way that bodies were possessed by the spirits in this film, because it was too limiting in how they could be stopped (really… illicit drugs were the only way to keep them out?) and, as you mentioned, really created a massive plot-pit in regards to battling them. What was the point of fighting them with guns if their deaths only meant the spirits would come out and possess any body that didn’t have a spirit in it already? Wouldn’t trapping the warriors inside something be more practical so you could make an effective escape away from the area?

Aaron: I actually really like the use of illicit drugs in the film, as I think it’s another in a long line of instances where Carpenter aligns himself with the underdogs and outcasts. It also begs the question; if the drug repels the Martians while also leaving you conscious enough to function as a human being, why isn’t everyone raiding her stash?

If the resultant film is less than the sum of its more successful parts, I tend to put a lot of that at the feet of the casting choices. The cast of Ghosts of Mars is full of people whose work I’ve enjoyed in other films, but who come across as flat or stilted here, unable to really convey the right smart-ass tone that Carpenter requires. The most interesting casting occurs on the sidelines, as the two men working on the train are Robert Carradine and Carpenter mainstay Peter Jason. The rest of the film could have used that same character actor energy, as a Roddy Piper, Donald Pleasance, or Dennis Dun would have helped things go a bit more smoothly. The best piece of casting in the film, Pam Grier as the lesbian commanding officer, is also one of the worst. One of the biggest problems with this film is that it introduces Pam Grier, and then kills her a few minutes in. There’s not even any dramatic tension to it; she just wanders off, and a few minutes later you see that she’s been decapitated. Oh, how much better this film might have been had Jason Statham been the one to wander offscreen.

Rik: I like Henstridge in the lead role. She has the physicality for the part, and she carries herself well in the fight scenes. Statham is saddled with a terrible role, and hadn’t yet really come out as the big action guy he would be later that year and moving forward. He is stuck with a fairly limited range of moves in the battle scenes. (I think it would be a fun project to grab footage of him from his later movies and edit them into his scenes in Ghosts of Mars.) And while he has never been more than a decent actor, he is pretty stiff in this film. I also don’t like the idea of hiring the great Pam Grier for a film only to discard her twenty minutes into it. If Carpenter was going for a little Janet Leigh misdirection, it worked. I thought she would be around longer.

Aaron: The misdirection in Psycho, however, is a genuine shock. It’s the sign of a filmmaker knowing what his audience expects and then doing the opposite. In this film, Pam Grier’s death is so underplayed that audience reaction is basically a shrug and “oh, well, I guess she’s not in the movie anymore.”

Rik: Agreed. The acting role that truly frustrates me is Ice Cube. The Cube was fine in Boyz n the Hood and Three Kings, of course, and I liked him well enough in the first two Friday films (the only two I have seen). I especially like him in the two Jump Street parodies, but apart from just a few others (Trespass, Higher Learning, Anaconda), I’ve not seen a lot of his films. (And none of his TV works… surprise!) But in Ghosts of Mars, as Desolation Williams (shitty name, by the way), he is tremendously out of his depth and fairly ridiculous. Sure, he pouts all through the film in that way that he does to look "tough," but he comes off looking like a teddy bear built out of marshmallows. Maybe his name in the credits should have been “Ice Cub”. I never believed that he was as adept a warrior as he is made out to be, and his fight scenes made me feel like I was watching adults play-wrestle with a little kid, as they let him throw them around the room in an exaggerated manner. And Ice Cube is that little kid.

Aaron: Speaking of Snake, one persistent rumor around this film is that it began as Escape from Mars, and would be a third Snake Plissken film. You and I have both seen this mentioned in several places, but we haven’t been able to find any legitimate sources to back this up. I can tell you Carpenter never mentions it in the commentary, at any rate. But it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Ice Cube does seem to be filling the Kurt Russell role (and at the very least they seem to shop at the same clothing outlets), and with very little tweaking you could see this fitting into the Snake Plissken narrative.

Rik: If indeed he is supposed to be a replacement for Snake Plissken, he is a pretty poor one. I am guessing he was the best they could get in their price range.

What I found pleasing to encounter was the domination of women in the film, where they are clearly far more in charge of important decisions and planning than the men are. They aren’t running things any better, but they seem to be in charge. To establish this matriarchal society, we are given two strong female figures at the outset of the story (Henstridge and Grier), but we also come across the inquisitor (Rosemary Forsyth) to whom Henstridge relates her flashback-heavy tale, and later meet Joanna Cassidy’s character, who was in charge of the mining camp and also releases the titular spirits from captivity to run amok. Having not listened to Carpenter’s commentary on the DVD (and not having run across written confirmation), It certainly seems like things have at least worked out or even run the other way on the equality front, not that they have gotten any less violent.

Aaron: I can’t make up my mind on whether Carpenter views the matriarchy as a good thing or a bad thing. At the very least, I think he views it with the same distrust of authority he displays in most of his previous films.

Rik: As he well should.

I’m ready to call this one. I think Ghosts of Mars has some good visual ideas, remains true to Carpenter’s through-line in regards to style and mood, has interesting casting for the most part but the wrong people in a couple of key roles, and really overestimates my need to watch ancient Martian warriors try on sale items from mall stores that cater to a false counterculture. I give it a 5 out of 9 on my rating scale, which is the middle of the road for me. How about you, Aaron?

Aaron: Yeah, I think I agree with you in general on this, and more than I thought I would going in. I thought I would be defending the film to you, but once I rewatched it, I found we were pretty much on the same page about everything. My grade, using your scale, would probably be about a 5 as well, leaning close to a 6. Can I use half points? I still enjoy a lot of the film, but feel like it might be awhile before I feel the urge to watch it again. Aside from the touches that mark this as distinctly Carpenterian, this film feels like something Paul Verhoeven would have done around the same time. Certainly the matriarchal society seems like something he would have a lot of satirical fun with. And that might lead to my biggest complaint with the film; it has no bite, no distinct identity of it’s own. And Carpenter is no stranger to satirical material, or loading his genre clichés with social/political metaphor. Ghosts of Mars could have used quite a bit more of that.

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