Ghosts of Mars is similar to Prince of Darkness in that it serves up an encore of Carpenter’s favourite storytelling tropes; the Rio Bravo remixing, the siege, the horde of supernatural baddies, the stoic antihero and plenty more. But where the previous film had an intensity and intoxicating bleakness that built on what came before it, Ghosts of Mars feels like a crash landing.
I think John Carpenter’s main problem wasn’t that his filmmaking got worse necessarily, it’s that it stayed the same. Alas what was striking and stylish in the 1970s and 80s just didn’t cut it in 2001. The costume and production design here feels painfully dated and artificial. While colourful cargo pants and a black vest-top worked wonders for Snake Plissken, they end up making poor Ice Cube look a bit daft (in fact, this film was originally conceived as a third Plissken outing – Escape from Mars – but was subsequently retooled and the Kurt Russell part became Cube’s Desolation Williams). Most of the backdrops look like painted polystyrene, as if from old episode of Star Trek, and the special effects are woefully bland. It’s also dreadfully overlit and lacks any sense of claustrophobia or atmosphere that Carpenter is usually so good at. You can’t help but feel that the director was disengaged with this thing from the get-go. It also doesn’t help that his influence on modern cinema was beginning to crystallise, meaning younger filmmakers were starting to beat him at his own game. The similarly themed Pitch Black came out the year before this and mostly succeeds in every way Carpenter’s film fails.
The movie also has a weird, back and forth flashback-within-a-flashback structure which dispels any proper sense of forward momentum with the plot. Even the over-reliance on dissolves instead of straight cuts drains the film of any sense of tension or immediacy. We know Natasha Henstridge survives, so whenever she’s put in peril it’s hard to care. There’s also a silly, numbing, thrash metal-tinged core that is a world away from the soundscapes of Carpenter’s glory days. It’s clear he just wanted an excuse to jam with members of Anthrax and Buckethead – which is great! good for him! – but is perhaps one misjudged creative decision too many.
All that said, even a bad John Carpenter movie has some saving graces. His Hawksian sense of character is just about alive, and you do come to enjoy spending time with this ragtag ensemble. Some of the performances are better than others – Natasha Henstridge is very good – but the sheer novelty of seeing actors like Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Ice Cube and Clea DuVall interact in this silly milieu just about makes it worth it. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously either and even ends with a cheesy wink-to-camera from Ice Cube making it hard to hate entirely. Not quite as bad as everyone makes out, but still a rather sad experience when you consider the heights this filmmaker once soared to. At least you can headbang to it.
Watched on Indicator blu-ray.