You sort of, kind of, maybe just a little bit have to appreciate and respect a film like Ghosts of Mars. It’s a go-for-broke effort that might fail — spectacularly at times — but because it feels like such an assault on the senses and is never boring, it’s hard to truly dislike it, even if every fiber of your being is screaming at you to hate it. I mean, even though it’s not really a good film, if it keeps you entertained because of many of the choices made by its director — and who’s more interesting than John Carpenter? — then it’s worth recommending, isn’t it?
Most of the story is told in flashback, which is already an unconventional choice. In the first scene, we see a council of people who call in a woman, Melanie (Natasha Henstridge), presumably the only survivor of a disaster, to tell her story. Because of their outfits, we assume it’s the future, although that will soon be confirmed once the story begins. And what a story it is. It’s the one you tell your grandkids. At least, if you manage to survive the whole ordeal, and if you ever have grandkids, which, given the society depicted in the film, is unlikely.
The majority of the film takes place in a small town on Mars. Yes, the red planet. If you didn’t know that was its nickname, you’ll be able to guess it after sitting through this film. The surroundings are red, the first-person shots showing us the world through the eyes of the villains are red — red just flows through this film like air does a vacuum hose. You’ll be sick of the color by the time Ghosts of Mars comes to an end.
Okay, so Melanie and a crew of tough people, including their Commander, Helena (Pam Grier), and “one of the last breeders,” Jericho (Jason Statham), are sent to this part of the planet to pick up and transport a prisoner, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), back to headquarters. He’s accused of having killed a lot of people, and of having the best name of anyone ever. When they get to this remote area, they find it deserted. Then they find bodies. Then they find crazy people. It’s really a lot of fun.
The titular “ghosts of Mars” are the villains here. They function by taking over the body of a human and turning that person into a deranged creature. Or possibly into the thinly veiled allegory for a Native American — at least, in the way that they were depicted in early Westerns. Maybe that’s giving the film too much credit, but it does give off a Western sort of vibe. Or, it does whenever it isn’t blasting heavy metal at us. Who really knows what Carpenter was going for here? This film is all over the map.
Anyway, the tough guys have to team up with the prisoner in a hope that at least some of them will be able to escape from the town alive. They can’t kill the infected people, as the ghosts just leave the host and find a new one — or are shown to have that ability, but don’t choose to use it in mass slaughters for some reason. They only actually do that when there’s one person killed at a time.
At every turn, Ghosts of Mars circumvents our expectations. That’s not always a good thing, but in more cases than not, it is. You expect certain characters to live, but they’ll die. You expect music that helps build or exacerbate tension? You get heavy metal thrown at you. You want to simply watch a character walk toward another? You get jump dissolves (a variation on the jump cut), which is certainly something you don’t see every day. You expect decent acting, and you get hammy, awful performances given by actors forced to spout some terrible dialogue. Okay, the last one isn’t a positive, but it does at least make the film different.
Where Ghosts of Mars really falls flat is when it promises some bigger concepts and ideas, but then completely ignores them for the rest of the time it plays. It’s made relatively clear that society is not matriarchal, and that the majority of people are now homosexual. Remember that “one of the last breeders” line? Yeah, that seems to be going somewhere — but then it doesn’t, just like any other potential high-minded concepts. Instead, we just get more shootouts.
That’s not to say anything bad about the shootouts. They’re fine. They’re shot well, they’re relatively entertaining, and it’s fun to watch Natasha Henstridge beat the absolute stuffing out of a great deal of infected people. I suppose I just wanted more. I wanted the earlier potential to be reached instead of scrapped. I wanted a director who clearly had something to say actually get the chance to say that, instead of dropping it in favor of what felt like the easy way out.
Ghosts of Mars isn’t really a good film, but it’s consistently interesting and entertaining and contains some things that you won’t often see in the movies. If you have a fondness for the color red, or B-movies set on Mars in which soldiers fight against miners infected by ghosts, turning them into savages in the process — assuming one can be “fond” of this exact setting — then you’ll have a good time. Don’t expect too much from it, though, as you’ll be disappointed if you’re hoping to see a truly good movie, or even one that explores the high-minded concepts it thinks about but never delves into.