Monday, September 12, 2016

Take Two: Ghosts of Mars

by Patrick Bromley
The movie that broke John Carpenter.

John Carpenter's 2001 film Ghosts of Mars is often called his worst movie. I'm not sure it is, even though I agree that it's in the running. I'm probably still inclined to call The Ward, his last theatrical feature (to date), his worst if only because while it's less of a mess than Ghosts of Mars, at least the latter shows signs of Carpenter's filmmaking personality. I'll take a wreck that feels like a John Carpenter wreck over something competent but generic any day.

I returned to Ghosts of Mars this week after all these years (I saw it opening night and maybe only one other time since) because of late I've become interested in figuring out what Carpenter's newest most underrated movie is. For years it was Prince of Darkness, but it seems like horror fans have caught up to that film's greatness -- and Scream Factory's Blu-ray didn't hurt. Then it seemed like In the Mouth of Madness became his next great film to receive a widespread rediscovery, leaving a void for the title of "Most Underrated Carpenter Film." Everyone will have their own opinions on the matter. Some will say Vampires; other, braver souls will be willing to go to bat for Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I wanted to see if maybe it was Ghosts of Mars. Instead I think it might still be Christine (pending a revisit) or Escape from L.A. Because it isn't this one.
Actually, the story goes that Ghosts was originally intended to be a third Escape movie, this time called Escape from Mars. But because L.A. had come up short at the box office (it grossed only half of its $50 million budget), the studio got cold feet and the movie was reworked into something "original." Snake Plissken was rewritten as Desolation Williams, a don't-give-a-fuck prisoner whose talents are enlisted to help an American police force fight off a martian mining colony that has been possessed by evil spirits. So he's basically Snake Plissken, and this is basically another Escape movie minus the fun and political outrage. While Carpenter reportedly wanted a then-mostly-unknown Jason Statham as Desolation Williams, the studio wanted a bigger name and insisted on the casting of Ice Cube and Statham -- head still full of spiky fuzz -- was downgraded to a supporting role. I like Ice Cube in the right role and everything, but even within the finished film it's clear that Statham should have had the part. He's got the right roguish, DGAF charm and the charisma of a born movie star. Cube doesn't create a character; he's just an embarrassing name and a lot of sneer and posturing.

But Carpenter's troubles weren't just limited to a studio mandate on Ice Cube. The production was, by most accounts, very difficult -- another factor that may have contributed to Carpenter's more or less walking away from Hollywood in the wake of its failure. Courtney Love, originally cast in the lead as officer Melanie Ballard, had to be replaced just prior to shooting (her foot had been run over). Her replacement, Natasha Henstridge, got so sick during filming that the production had to be shut down for a week until she could recover. The sets were difficult to recreate, requiring that thousands of gallons of red dye be used to dye the New Mexico sand so that it might double for Mars. The editing doesn't always match up, meaning Ice Cube has a different haircut during exterior scenes than when indoors. It all results in a movie that, unlike the usual confidence and assurance of Carpenter's work, feels like it limped to the screen in a form that the director deemed "most presentable."
Part of Carpenter's genius has always been how clean a filmmaker he is: simple but effective compositions, straightforward construction. He's a classicist in the best sense of the word. With Ghosts of Mars, though, he made a movie guilty of something no other Carpenter film can be accused of being: sloppy. Whether this is a function of trying to cut around the movie's problems or edits made at the insistence of a studio or if it was just Carpenter trying to play around I cannot say, but the results feel looser and more haphazard than his usual work. He continues to experiment with certain language he began developing in Vampires, the film he made prior to this one, leaning into editing that relies more heavily on dissolves and wipes to create a work that's less about hard lines and straight edges and becomes something blurrier and more dreamlike. It doesn't quite suit him. I wouldn't suggest that Carpenter needs to stay in a box of his own making, but the approach he adopts here feels too disorganized for what is basically another of his western/siege movies. That's a genre with a fairly standard set of cinematic rules; by breaking them, Carpenter isn't so much deconstructing the genre as he is speaking the language poorly. What makes that especially frustrating is that he's the guy who had taken what came before and more or less rewrote that language in contemporary genre movies.

It's not just the technique of Ghosts of Mars that feels faulty, either. The movie is built on rocky foundation. The structure is like a nesting doll of flashbacks and remembrances. The entirety of the narrative is told as the recollections of Henstridge to some sort of council, but then within that framework Carpenter is constantly cutting away to memories and stories told by other characters. At one point, Jason Statham's character Jericho meets up with Henstridge and begins recounting what happened to him during an off-camera sequence on the planet, explaining how he ended up with three convicts, led by Duane Davis. During that flashback, Davis begins narrating his own flashback about discovering the titular ghosts of Mars -- meaning we're watching a flashback inside of a flashback inside of a flashback, none of which belong to the same character. I would love to argue that these are choices made because Ghosts of Mars is a movie about memory -- the way that echoes of the past can be shared with one another, sometimes even physically in the form of a ghost cloud that then possesses people and imbues them with memories of Mars itself. I think I might be overthinking that one, though, giving credit where it is not due because I want to believe that one of my favorite filmmakers isn't simply guilty of bad storytelling. Sometimes a ghost cloud is just a ghost cloud.
Even the action feels somewhat limp. The design of the possessed colonists, who are heavily pierced and slathered in makeup (a potentially deliberate decision meant to echo Native Americans, whose own land was supplanted by the same white people now trying to colonize Mars and who here are at least afforded a measure of revenge), is striking. The lead monster, credited as Big Daddy Mars (played by Richard Cetrone), makes for a striking character in design and in performance. But these "ghosts" never do more than pose a generic threat, no different from any standard zombie movie in which there are a bunch of bad things waiting for the heroes outside. When they do battle, it's strangely airless. Yes, characters are killed off swiftly and sometimes brutally, but none of it registers because they're just props -- even the name actors for whom we are presumably supposed to care. The movie runs around in circles at times trying to create conflict; a character is chained up and freed, only to be locked up again. They run outside, they go back inside. Repeat. As a genre action movie (albeit with horror, sci fi and western overtones), Ghosts of Mars is not without fun, but it's a far cry from that of which we know Carpenter is capable.

While the movie features an impressive cast that includes not just Cube, Henstridge and Statham but also Joanna Cassidy, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier and Robert Carradine in a very small role, hardly any of the actors are put to good use. Grier's casting as the original leader of the team makes sense; Ghosts of Mars establishes that the new society is essentially a matriarchy, so having the police led by an icon of female strength is a canny choice. It also means that when she (spoiler) is killed in one of the first of the movie's countless beheadings, it leaves an Executive Decision-style vacuum in leadership to be filled by Natasha Henstridge. At the same time, Grier is never allowed to do much to suggest strength or create any kind of character; the work was pretty much done when she was cast in the part. The suggestion that this is a female-run society is also really interesting and something the movie does basically nothing with, particularly once it hands the whole thing over to Ice Cube and negates that one interesting idea completely by letting another man call the shots.
Henstridge might also be the wrong actor for the job. She handles Ballard's strength and physicality well enough, but it's suggested that the character is something of a disaster -- a drug addict, first and foremost, and a cop whose choices are being called into question as the movie opens. Here's where Courtney Love would have nailed the part, not just because of her own history with drugs but also because she's not someone we immediately think should be calling the shots, but who has no choice once the original leader is removed from the team. Henstridge is too perfect; her tall, blonde, angular face is a model of Germanic or Norwegian idealism. Her hair is always perfectly in place. Her makeup never wrong. None of this is the fault of Henstridge -- we cannot blame her for being beautiful -- but rather the casting director and/or a hair and makeup department who needed a mess who learns to be a leader and instead went with a fashion model who always has it together.

Instead of recording another synthesizer score for the movie, Carpenter continued to expand on the heavy metal influences he began playing with for In the Mouth of Madness, this time collaborating with a number of musicians like Steve Vai, Buckethead and Anthrax for a score that, unfortunately, sounds too generically nu-metal (the kind of thing that was in vogue in the early 2000s) to be identifiably Carpenter. That's the movie in a nutshell: a work that is at once recognizable as his while blurring the lines enough to seem like something "other." Unfortunately, that "other" feels less like Carpenter breaking new ground and more like backsliding into the kind of generic stuff that Screen Gems has been cranking out for a decade and a half -- a kind of imitation Carpenter that uses many of the tropes of his work but to lesser effect.
Ghosts of Mars is, in many ways, an example of John Carpenter's "greatest hits." It is science fiction horror. It is a western. It is, at its heart, a siege film. One of its main protagonists is a typical Carpenter antihero in the tradition of Snake Plissken and John Nada. It features a possession subplot in which, like with The Thing and Prince of Darkness, characters aren't sure who among them is carrying the evil. It is anti-authority. And yet seeing all of these elements we've come to expect from one of the greatest American filmmakers of the last 50 years messily assembled the way they are here only throws the movie's problems into sharper relief. At the same time, at least it makes this a John Carpenter movie in a way that The Ward, the only other feature he's directed in the 2000s, does not. It may still be a candidate for his worst movie in only because The Ward is less shoddily constructed; at best, it lies somewhere in his bottom five. Between the production woes, the messy finished product and disappointing box office returns (it cost about half of Escape from L.A. at $28 million and still managed to gross only half its budget), Ghosts of Mars beat John Carpenter down and made him realize that maybe he didn't need this shit anymore. After three decades of making straight-up classics, I can't blame him. This feels like the work of a guy trying to see if he still had anything left in the tank and discovering not that it was empty, but that he didn't feel like fucking driving anymore.


  1. damn, you make me want to revisit it myself

  2. I watched both Gosts and Christine in the last year and believe me, the latter is super fun, especially compared to Ghosts.
    I know you're being diplomatic, but it's ok to say that Ice Cube sucks really hard.

  3. This is the only movie of Carpenter's that I just can't make it through. Was hoping for a gem like Christine, but alas...

    Ice Cube is totally miscast. He looks like he was he was slamming back cinnamon buns at the buffet table during the making of this movie.

  4. I still feel like I really enjoy the movie and not in an ironic way. It was one of those movies I watched so many times on HBO and I ended up liking more than I would expect. It's definitely a mess, but I still can't help but like it.

  5. I enjoyed reading this and I certainly can't argue with your thorough demolition of this movie, but it still just works for me. It's wildly entertaining and I do like the aesthetic. I may be a garbage person though. I'd watch this 10 times before The Ward or Village of the Damned which I think are his only "bad" movies.

    1. I think the first 20-30 minutes of Village of the Damned are so strong that it keeps it out of the "bad" column for me, though I completely agree about the remaining 60. And The Ward is still his worst. Also, you are for sure a garbage person.

    2. Also, I'd watch this before those other two as well.

  6. In college, when I was researching Carpenter and trying to watch all his movies (still haven't seen Memoirs or The Ward), I found this movie and saw its reception and thought I was going to be the one to claim that it's great. Before seeing it, I loved the cast and the plot and I was going to see something that nobody else had. Nope. And I feel bad about it. It's why I haven't watched The Ward--I love Carpenter too much to not love his movies.

  7. I don't think your observation that Ghosts of Mars is a movie about memory is overthinking it at all, Patrick. I'd argue that John imbued the film with callbacks to his filmography on purpose. I think financing, casting, and prepping this film was such a hard slog, he knew this would be his last film before the first 100 feet of film past through the camera's gate. I think he made a conscious choice for Ghosts of Mars to be a summation of his work.

    If it started out as the third Escape movie, it certainly doesn't give off that vibe anymore. It comes across like a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 on Mars. Napoleon Wilson is now Desolation Williams. Melanie Ballard is a female Ethan Bishop. If Assault was John's Rio Bravo, Ghosts is his Rio Lobo.

    Yes, the movie's sloppy, but in my eyes that's what makes it so unabashedly grindhouse. It's John going back to his drive-in roots. I think the casting, the action choreography, the score (the bulk of the film may be engulfed in metal, but the main title and end title music is glorious), and the effects are all indicative of that. Low on filmmaking gas, John made the kind of action movie his Italian imitators could only dream of making.

    For years now, I've considered Village of the Damned Carpenter's worst movie. And yet I still bought the Scream Factory disc. Because I'm a Carpenter completist. And I found that the story behind the making of the film was worth every dollar. (Mostly it’s Peter Jason’s recollections. So good.) In retrospect, The Ward has to be his incontestably worst film. If his name wasn't above the title, I'd never know he directed it. That's how devoid of his personality that movie is.

    Am I sad Ghosts of Mars wasn't John going out on top, at the height of his powers? Sure I am. But it is fun. Ghosts of Mars is an echo of a past John is sharing with his diehard fans, and he made his exit in typical Carpenter fashion. Anti-authority, with middle finger fully extended.


    1. I'm surprised how reviled Village of the Damned is. It certainly doesn't compare to his classics, but not much does. When you consider that it was a "hired gun" job for him, I think it's very watchable. Also when you consider that cast of wooden leads he was sandbagged with, it's a miracle that it didn't turn out comically bad. Lemon Pledge can't make wood more presentable than this. It sort of lacks that Carpenter identity, but I don't see that as a death sentence. Attach a lesser director's name to the same finished product and I think it would be viewed more favourably.

    2. Watching Village of the Damned again after several years, on the new Scream Factory disc, almost makes me want to forgive the movie of its trespasses. Almost. I think I can probably make excuses for it now that The Ward exists. I can probably celebrate Village for its hamminess.