The hero of John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is introduced asleep and handcuffed to a train. It seems like an apt metaphor for the entire film itself - tired, uninspired, and forced to move forward on a rail. Unsurprisingly, it was while making this film that John Carpenter decided he had better things to do than make movies he didn't like, and he mostly turned his back on the film industry since, with only three projects directed by him in the nine years following, and none since 2011's The Ward.
John Carpenter's films have always had firm grasps on the past and the future - they have narratives and themes of old Westerns while being told in modern genres, with creative, inventive camera work and (when he used to get the budgets for it) top-of-the-line special effects. It's no shock that Ghosts of Mars has echoes of his previous work; in fact, it may have started life as a third Escape movie, and would have brought Kurt Russel and John Carpenter back together for a final time, except that Escape from L.A. was a box-office failure.
Ghosts of Mars is set in a rather ill-defined matriarchal society on Mars, which is being slowly terraformed in order to make the atmosphere conducive to human life. This is convenient, because it means actors can just wander around without having to wear space suits, which would be expensive, and get in the way of the audience gawking at Natasha Henstridge, who plays Lt. Ballard.
She's the hero of the film, part of an escort police force led by Commander Braddock (Pam Grier), with a couple of rookies (including Clea Duvall as Bashira and Liam Waite as Descanso) and a newly transferred Sergeant Jericho, played by Jason Statham. They're on their way to pick up a dangerous criminal, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) who is said to have murdered and mutilated half a dozen corpses somewhere in a mining facility. He claims the people were dead when he got there, and he only stole the facility's payroll.
There's very little to differentiate the various cops. Ballard gets high when off duty. Both Jericho and Braddock hit on Ballard, while Bashira and Descanso barely have a line of dialogue in the first half hour of the film. When this colorless crew arrive at the mining station where Desolation is being held prisoner, they find it apparently deserted...until they discover the headless bodies of all the locals inside. Only the prisoners have been untouched.
From there, a pretty obvious horror scenario plays itself out - the cops have to investigate, and one by one they disappear. There's a drunk in the prison who seems to know a bit too much about what's going on. One of the few people the cops find alive locked inside a tractor, doors sealed, and after yelling something at the cops, he cuts his own throat in front of them. Weird.
Eventually, Jericho stumbles on a conclave of very strange people, up near the mine. They're mutilating themselves, cavorting like savages, and all being yelled at by a weird Marilyn Manson-looking guy who speaks in an alien language.
This leads to a siege situation, with our heroes eventually having to make a truce with the prisoners if anyone's going to get out of this alive. There's twists and turns in the plot, which unfolds with a very strange narrative device: the entire story is supposed to be Ballard's testimony as to why she's the only one to come back from the mining facility, alone on the train which had been sealed shut. But rather than intercutting between concurrently happening scenes, all of the action is conveyed in separate flashbacks, until at one point, when Jericho is describing how he met up with three survivors, and they tell him how they survived, we get three, maybe four flashbacks deep.
It's never really confusing, but nor does it deepen the film or set up any clever reveals within the flashback structure. It seems entirely too much like an exercise, just something for John Carpenter to do to liven up a story that wasn't working all that well. Certainly, the effects, make-up, and constantly boring red pallete of the film don't help. John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars cost $28 million to make, not a princely sum even 18 years ago, but it still looks like it was made for about $500,000 in the '70s.
It has a number of elements from previous Carpenter films - the story deeply echoes Assault on Precinct 13, which has a similar siege storyline and is itself a modern retelling of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. The titular "ghosts", which had been possessing the miners and turning them into murdering marauders, touch on some The Thing notes, since the evil things are transmittable and can be anyone.
There are actually some neat ideas in Ghosts of Mars. There's a lot of promise in some of the premises, and the cast on paper sounds fun. But it's inert. There's never a second of tension in the fights. The characters barely have anything to distinguish them besides their names and costumes. Characters get killed and are never mentioned again. The special effects occasionally look charmingly terrible, but along the way the charm runs out. There are a lot of explosions, which don't seem to do anything but make bad guys leap into the air and tumble away. The bad guys are the least frightening, least interesting, least memorable movie bad guys I can bring to mind.
Occasionally, there's a scene that works. In one scene, the criminals get the drop on the cops, and then the whole situation reverses in a way that made me laugh. And in the scene where a major character is possessed and has visions that explain, in an oblique way, just what the hell they're fighting, it's fascinatingly strange. For these brief moments, that John Carpenter energy seems to be back. Then it fades away. John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is an unfortunate mess, made worse by knowing it probably didn't have to be.
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars has been released on Blu-ray by Mill Creek Entertainment. Extras include a lively commentary by John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge, and a set of short video featurettes, including "Video Diary: Red Desert Nights" (17 mins), "Scoring Ghosts of Mars" (7 mins), and SFX Deconstructions (7 mins). None of the extras, as far as I can tell, are new for this release.