Ghosts of Mars 2001 Review: One of John Carpenter’s lesser films

Ghosts Of Mars may have been one of John Carpenter’s lesser works. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of remarkable things about it…

Filmmaker John Carpenter isn’t just a respected genre director. He’s the screenwriter, producer, director and musician behind some of the greatest science fiction, horror and action films ever made, including Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing and Escape From New York. Even his films that weren’t big hits at the time, such as Starman, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live, have since been embraced as cult gems.

Ghosts Of Mars (Bong Ma Tren Sao Hoa), meanwhile, came out in 2001. A point in Carpenter’s career where he admitted that he’d “burned out”  creatively. A sci-fi horror mash-up about cops and criminals under siege from an army of Martian-possessed people. It sounded on paper like it should have everything going for it – which we’ll cover very soon. But somehow, none of it gelled into a satisfying whole. The movie made only half of its $14million budget back at the box office. And it marked Carpenter’s temporary retirement from feature filmmaking.

But while Ghosts Of Mars is one of Carpenter’s lesser films, critically and financially (its aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes is 21%, if that’s any indication). That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of remarkable things to write about this oft-maligned film.

When you analyse Ghosts Of Mars element by element, it’s a bit of a shame it didn’t come off as a better enterprise than it did. For one thing, it’s full of all the pet things that Carpenter appeared to enjoy exploring in his other movies. In fact, it almost reads like a compression of all his earlier films into a single story. The star of the movie, though, is Natasha Henstridge (Species, Maximum Risk) as Lieutenant Melanie Ballard.

Its Western underpinnings and siege finale are straight out of Assault On Precinct 13. As are its wise-talking convicts and tough cops. Its themes of bodily invasion and possession bear echoes of The Thing. Even its army of demon-possessed miners has a precedent somewhere else. Since they look vaguely like the creepy marauders in Prince Of Darkness, right down to their leader, whose long hair, pale skin and black eye make-up recall the look of Alice Cooper’s cameo in that earlier film.

Somehow, though, Carpenter never quite gets a rein on all of this stuff in the way he did in those earlier movies. The numerous scenes of gunplay lack the intensity and impact of Assault. And the sense of horror is undercut by a distractingly noisy metal soundtrack. Which includes wailing guitar contributions from such fret-worrying gods as Steve Vai, and Robin Finck.

Between all these squalling rock riffs, and its army of demon-possessed humans, all piercings, self-administered cuts, long hair and leather, Ghosts Of Mars often resembles a riot at a Judas Priest gig rather than a sci-fi action film. Jason Statham spends much of the film unlocking doors and describing rooms.

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