John Carpenter is one of the few directors who, like Frank Capra or Alfred Hitchcock, gets to put his name above the titles of his films. But after churning out such thrill-free flicks as "Escape from L.A.," "Vampires" and his latest "Ghosts of Mars," he should discontinue the practice for fear of sullying what's left of his good name.
In his early micro-budgeted movies like "Assault on Precinct 13" and "Halloween," Carpenter displayed an ingenuity that more than compensated for the limited resources he had. "Ghosts of Mars," however, is merely cheap. It's a bit hard to believe the film takes place in 2076 on the red planet, when the skies appear like sloppy paintings and the trains that scurry by look like a child's play set.
Unconscious and handcuffed to a bunk in one of those miniature vehicles is Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge, "The Whole Nine Yards"), who at an inquiry, appears to be the only survivor of a prisoner exchange gone wrong. The criminal she was supposed to escort is hardly routine, though. James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) is suspected, but not convicted, of several grizzly murders and has apparently escaped again.
Ballard reveals that a much darker force has brought about the present calamity and taken the lives of the rest of her crew. When they arrive at a jail in the wryly named Shining Canyon, they discover that it and the nearby mine are nearly abandoned. They quickly discover that the area has been contaminated by long dormant Martian spirits. Whatever these demons are (the screenplay by Larry Sulkis and Carpenter never makes it clear), they leap into the bodies of the new invading humans, turning them into suicidal/homicidal zombies. While a few gunshots can kill their hosts, the parasitic spirits (or unconvincing computer-simulated vapors) can then leap into new bodies, making escape next to impossible.
And rather unbelievable. In his early flick "Dark Star," Carpenter made his cheap sci-fi sets part of the joke. In "Ghosts of Mars," his sense of humor seems to have departed. Most of the film is played with tedious seriousness, and the attempts at levity (like when an inebriated man chops off some of his own digits) fall horribly flat. In fact, "Ghosts of Mars" is often at its most hilarious when it tries to scare or thrill. The Martian zombies look like crazed Marilyn Manson wannabes who missed the concert, and the battle scenes with them and Ballard's crew are clumsily choreographed. When Ballard punches or kicks people into submission, the actors are felled by blows that barely make contact.
Carpenter attempts to recapture some of the fear from enclosure he had in "Assault on Precinct 13," but his leaden pacing and flashback structure undermine his intents. We know Ballard's going to escape, so where's the mystery? Whereas "Assault" combined genuine shocks with old-school suspense, "Ghosts of Mars" has a few scenes of decapitations toward the end and dull characters who inspire no sympathy. Jason Statham ("Snatch") plays Ballard's obnoxiously sexist partner Jericho Butler. He's so rude that one can't wait for the Martians to sever his noggin.
The logic behind the creatures is poorly conceived. We never know why they prefer some humans to others, and the techniques used to get the ghosts out of Ballard in one scene are guaranteed to generate groans of disbelief.
Carpenter, knowingly or unknowingly, borrows heavily from last year's first-rate B-thriller "Pitch Black." Even some of the point-of-view shots seem lifted from the earlier flick. It had the advantage of a cast of then relatively unknown actors like Vin Diesel playing dynamic roles. A viewer was left wondering if a character was good or bad, helping to build considerable tension. Cube, however, already has a "star" persona, so his actions are not terribly enigmatic. Carpenter mistakenly rests his film on the wooden Henstridge and wastes the talents of better thespians like Pam Grier and Joanna Cassidy.
It seems somewhat appropriate that Carpenter's protagonists are scared by ancient spirits. If the director continues to make films like this, the delights he once offered will be nothing but a distant memory.