Guilty Pleasure: Ghosts of Mars

Ghosts of Mars has been universally panned by critics and earned only about half of its budget in the worldwide box office.  It’s safe to say that this move has been a miserable failure.  Despite this, I consider it a fun movie to watch and rewatch every so often, with great cast and a simple story that doesn’t require me to think too much.  Ghosts of Mars is one of my guilty pleasures.

The movie takes place on Mars after colonization started.  The planet has not yet been fully terraformed, and consists of a central hub city and a network of mining outposts, connected by rails.  Deputy Ballard, played by Natasha Henstridge, is discovered in an abandoned train that arrived at the hub via autopilot.  Most of the movie then plays as Ballard is interrogated by an investigative committee.  Through full-cast flashbacks we learn that she was part of a police contingent sent to collect a dangerous prisoner, Desolation Williams (played by Ice Cube) from a mining outpost and bring him to the hub.

Once the group arrives at the outpost they find that nearly everyone had either disappeared or has been slaughtered in very bloody and inventive ways.  Soon, the group finds Williams, and through a series of misadventures they decide to team up with him and his henchmen, in order to survive the attacks of strangely mutilated mutant-like zombies.  A scientist they rescue finally puts the story together: she discovered an ancient tomb and inadvertently released native microorganisms, which infect people, cause them to self-mutilate and attack anyone who is not infected.  Once killed, the ghost-like fog of microorganisms travels on to the next person.

What follows is a long, drawn-out scene of action and gratuitous violence.  Severed limbs are flying through the air, followed by bodies tossed by never-ending explosions, and our group of survivors is picked off one by one.  Not that it matters, though, as this is a flashback and we know who survives.  Finally, the movie comes to a cliffhanger ending, and I may be one of the few people who’ve been yearning for a sequel.

This movie had everything going for it, except of the director.  Many people will claim the acting, script and special effects were sub-par as well, but I found them all effective and very endearing.  I even think the directing was just as good as could be realistically expected.  Realistic expectations are the key here.

So, let me start with the most obvious aspect of the movie: John Carpenter.  The master of horror and silly action himself directed the movie and lent his name to the full movie title John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.  This created very high expectations, which were ultimately unfulfilled.  Realistically, though, Carpenter delivered exactly what was expected of him.  This movie is a mashup of some of his previous masterworks, in particular, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog and Escape from New York.  Our group of heroes is isolated and surrounded by numerous enemies, and needs to fight their way out.  The campy ambiance – persistent night and a strong feeling that the entire set is in a hangar in the middle of a desert (it wasn’t; in fact, it was filmed at night in an abandoned mine in Mexico) – further evoke Carpenter’s two Escape movies.  Ghosts of Mars is thus exactly what a fan of Carpenter’s early work would expect to see.  However, the director has not shied of taking risks in the past and jumped genres, with varying success.  Movies like Big Trouble in Little China, Starman and They Live sound silly on paper, but he delivered cult classics.  Others, such as his previous movie Vampires sounded silly and looked silly.  Ghosts of Mars didn’t seem any sillier; only some people expected a hit, and not a risk.

I may be also in the minority in appreciating the script.  Despite the flashback structure, the story is very linear and easy to understand.  It’s not pretentious, there are no moral lessons, and thanks to its simplicity it is also remarkably believable.  At a time and age where everyone wants to lecture their audience, it’s always refreshing to find a fun movie that’s just that: a fun movie.

Let’s not forget the cast, either.  It’s remarkable that Carpenter brought together such a strong ensemble, which went on to have long and successful careers.  Henstridge was already known for the first two Species movies, but after Ghosts of Mars embarked on a long career.  Two of her underlings are portrayed by Clea DuVall and Jason Statham, respectively.  DuVall went on to become a prominent actress in numerous movies and TV shows (I’m especially partial to Virtuality, a TV show pilot that sadly never got its follow-on series).  Statham came with two minor roles and later developed into one of the top action stars of the past two decades.  Desolation Williams is played wonderfully over the top by Ice Cube.  Ghosts of Mars also features a few veteran stars, such as Pam Grier and Joanna Cassidy of Blade Runner fame.  As an interesting aside, the main antagonist was played by the same stuntman and actor who portrayed the fierce Merman in Cabin in the Woods.

Thanks to the simple script, all characters were very one-dimensional, but I believe this only aided to my enjoyment of the movie.  Ice Cube clearly had a lot of fun playing the over the top Williams who deadpanned some of the most awful one-liners I’ve ever heard in a movie.  Statham was always horny for Henstridge, but so was Grier.  DuVall had some bit parts and would be called bland, if she didn’t have her head chopped off in one of the most memorable ways I’ve seen.

The production was, in my opinion, appropriate to a Carpenter movie.  It seemed that a shoestring budget was stretched beyond what other directors would think was possible.  The movie seems to be using physical models for their sets, especially the outpost and the train.  Explosions look more like fireworks, but still make the unfortunate victims fly off the screen.   The production team compensated this with effective makeup and a very inventive way of fighting: while the good guys use firearms (which are less effective against enemies that don’t seem to feel pain), the enemies throw circular saw blades with deadly precision and to a great effect, as illustrated by the limbs and heads cleanly chopped off.  The music is very energetic, further coloring the ambiance.  The result is a rewatchable movie, which aged better than many of its contemporaries.

My only problem with the movie was a series of shortcuts that I found lazy.  For example, at one point one of the characters explains that the air is not yet fully breathable, and breathing through a straw device is needed to avoid some nasty side effects.  This is abandoned within minutes of being introduced.  The biggest transgression against logic, however, came when the main character became infected by the Martians.  She took a mildly psychedelic drug, which chased the microbes out of her body.  If it was this easy to avoid getting infected, everyone on Mars would have been high.

Even with these small issues, however, Ghosts of Mars had really stood its test of time.  Maybe it wasn’t all that well received when it first came out, and maybe it looks like most of the special effects budget was spent on fire crackers, but I find it rewatchable even 17 years later, when many higher rated movies from 2001 are largely forgotten.

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