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.
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."
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.
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.
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.