Friday, May 25, 2012

Knee Deep in the Dead: Ghosts of Mars

Amateur Teratologist is a fan of John Carpenter. He's directed favorites like Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

Apparently, we also really like Kurt Russell. He's so dreamy.
During the '90s, Carpenter slowed down. From this era, I can only recommended Escape from L.A. (1996) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995), though the latter took multiple viewings before I made my peace with it. What remained constant over the years were Carpenter's techniques, but like old ghosts haunting the silver screen, they became more intrusive and out of place over time; in Ghosts of Mars (2001), they let him down completely.

Ghosts of Mars flopped at the box office, causing John Carpenter to sit out the 2000's after a whimper, not a bang. The movie is three or four earlier efforts smooshed together: The backbone is Carpenter's second film, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), in which a police station in LA is besieged by bloodthirsty gang members. To survive, the cops must team up with a convicted killer whose prison transport stopped at the precinct. In Ghosts of Mars, space cops are sent to pick up a prisoner from a mining camp on Mars only to discover that the miners are possessed by space ghosts. As before, the space cops join forces with the criminal they were sent to collect.

On your left, Earth by way of The Thing; on your right, Mars by way of Ghosts of Mars.
There's elements of other Carpenter movies in Ghosts of Mars: The threat of subversion from The Thing (1982), the insanities of the possessed from In the Mouth of Madness (1995), there's even a slasher vibe at the beginning and end of the movie that can be traced to Halloween (1978). Ghosts of Mars is undoubtedly a John Carpenter movie: The way the shots are composed, the pacing, the dialog, the synthesized portions of the score, even the effects--in 2001, Ghosts of Mars is still using the same special effects Carpenter was using in the '80s. Keep in mind, The Matrix and all its high tech CGI was released in 1999.

I'm a fan of movie miniatures, but this landscape looks more like a game of Warhammer 40,000 than a feature film.
After hearing all the negative hype, I was disappointed to find that Ghosts of Mars was merely a paint by numbers sci-fi action movie rather than a trainwreck. The only truly bad parts are the heavy metal soundtrack (it's just trying too hard) and the main enemy boss, Big Daddy Mars. Big Daddy screams out orders in what I can only assume is supposed to be Martian, but it sounds like some kind of cartoon baby mushmouth tantrum.

He couldn't decide if he was going to a Kiss, Gwar or Marilyn Manson concert, so he dressed for all three.
After a decades-long career, it's clear that John Carpenter was out of ideas. While I like his style, it's a weakness here; Ghosts of Mars is a curious anachronism, and if it had been released ten years earlier, I think it would have been much better received. The video game Doom came out in '93, and Ghosts of Mars could have been an early '90s film adaptation--instead, we got 2005's Doom movie, but that's a review for another day.

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