There's a definite B-movie appeal to the ham-fisted acting, high body count and heavy metal soundtrack of John Carpenter's sci-fi/action/horror flick "Ghost of Mars."
The man has been making roguishly chintzy movies for a living since 1974's space-faring spoof "Dark Star," and he's good at it. But give Carpenter an A-movie budget and a script devoid of camp value, and you just don't get what you paid for.
Here's a high-concept story about long-dormant ethereal Martians taking over the bodies of human colonists and going on killing sprees en masse, and there's not a tongue-in-cheek laugh to be had in the whole picture. Instead, there's a lot of testosterone posturing, heavy artillery fire and a burdensome flashback-within-flashback narrative that follows a police unit dispatched to a remote "Mad Max"-like mining outpost to bring back a supposedly savage criminal played by the permanently furrow-browed Ice Cube.
When they arrive by armored monorail, cops discover the colony empty except for a slew of decapitated bodies and a few prisoners. Then they start getting picked off one-by-one, beginning with their commander (played by the always super-cool Pam Grier).
A lieutenant played by hard-bodied Natasha Henstridge ("Species," "The Whole Nine Yards") takes command as they discover they're surrounded by murderous Martian spirits that have taken over hundreds of human bodies and mutilated them with enough facial piercings and zombie-ghoul makeup that they look like the crowd at a Marilyn Manson concert.
Cops and criminals join forces to get the heck out of there, which leads to mucho machine-gun fire and other Karo-syrup gore as the dwindling crew goes hand-to-hand with the thrash-metal Martians. But as bullet- and body-riddled as the last 40 minutes of the movie is, none of it has much punch.
A bigger problem is that the director keeps throwing so much irrelevant, unexplained, locale-establishing information in your face that it's impossible to turn off your brain -- which is key to the proper enjoyment of any John Carpenter movie.
He makes a point of citing in the introduction that the human colonies on Mars are a matriarchal society, and while the chicks in this pic are decidedly tough, nothing else in the entire film alludes to this fact or explains how and when it came to be. Another literally atmospheric factoid specifically emphasized but never employed: Mars is 84-percent terraformed at the time the story takes place, so humans still need supplemental breathing apparatus -- but apparently only in the one scene where this information is mentioned. What's the point of weighing us down with such extraneous particulars if they're not going to play any part in the plot?
Then there's that moment when the characters seem to realize they've escaped with their lives too early and suddenly, inexplicably decide to go back to the mines to blow up a never-mentioned-before nuclear power plant in the hopes of killing more Martians. Can't they call in some kind of air strike or something? Apparently not, because staticy, short-range walkie-talkies seem to be the only form of communication on this entire, supposedly futuristic planet.
None of this would matter if "Ghosts of Mars" had that trademarked John Carpenter sense of irony (like "Escape from New York," "Escape from L.A." and "They Live") or his even his genuine sense of terror (like "Halloween" and "The Thing"). But this picture doesn't have much in the way of personality at all.
What's more, "Ghost of Mars" feels like a lackluster retread of last year's "Pitch Black" -- a stylish, truly scary yet dryly ironic B-movie about the crew of a criminal transport who have to depend on a mass-murdering prisoner to survive after crash-landing on an eclipsed planet teeming with bloodthirsty, razor-toothed, armor-plated, flying alien monsters.
All this movie did was make me want to buy that one on DVD.
Run time: 98 mins
In Theaters: Friday 24th August 2001
Box Office USA: $7.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $8.7M
Distributed by: Sony
Production compaines: Screen Gems
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 21%
Fresh: 22 Rotten: 81
IMDB: 4.9 / 10
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Natasha Henstridge as Lt. Melanie Ballard, Ice Cube as James 'Desolation' Williams, Jason Statham as Sgt. Jericho Butler, Clea DuVall as Bashira Kincaid, Pam Grier as Commander Helena Braddock, Joanna Cassidy as Dr. Arlene Whitlock, Richard Cetrone as Big Daddy Mars, Rosemary Forsyth as Inquisitor, Lobo Sebastian as Dos, Rodney A. Grant as Tres, Peter Jason as Engineer McSimms, Wanda De Jesus as Akooshay, Liam Waite as Michael Descanso, Duane Davis as Uno, Doug McGrath as Benchley, Rick Edelstein as Zimmerman, Rex Linn as Yared, Michael Krawic as Man in the Rover, Robert Carradine as Rodale, Eileen Weisinger as Woman Warrior
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