The natural element for “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars” is the drive-in, and that’s the problem. Carpenter’s movies, and especially his new one, belong to a bygone filmgoing culture that reveled in cheap –rather than corporate-busting expensive — chills and thrills, where your attention was divided between checking out the screen and checking out your date. Aside from a fluke case like “The Fast and the Furious,” there’s little room for such stuff in the multiplex era, and this deliberately pre-’90s slice of rock ‘n’ roll-tinged sci-fi horror, decorated with anything but the latest in special effects, seems particularly grungy and marginal. That’s where many of Carpenter’s hard-core fans want to be, but if his recent pics are any measure, there aren’t enough followers to push this actioner past a modest B.O. tally, though strong ancillary will probably follow.
To the question of why he inserts his name in his titles, Carpenter once answered: “Who else would make these movies?” Clearly, nobody but Carpenter would now make “Ghosts of Mars,” as it’s a kind of amalgam of “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Thing,” and the dystopias in “Escape From New York” and “Escape From L.A.” Long ago, Roger Corman made or produced such exploiters, playing off our worst fears and happily transplanting anachronistic pop style and attitudes into a weird, scary future. What’s almost charming about Carpenter’s new film is that he doesn’t seem concerned about providing auds with their weekly fix of new screen effects but instead prefers his space adventure on the funky side, even if that means the funk gets ridiculous.
The angle here is that a matriarchy rules the Mars colony of 2176. At a hearing in the colony city of Chryse, cop Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is grilled by ruling councilwomen about why she came back as the sole survivor from her unit’s latest assignment, bringing feared killer James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) back into custody. Ballard’s testimony defines the heart of pic’s action, starting with her crew’s trip aboard a transport train for the mining outpost Shining Canyon. Her comrades include vet cop Braddock (Pam Grier), rookie Bashira (Clea Duvall) and utility guy Jericho (Jason Statham), who is forever trying to get inside Ballard’s sleek black leather uniform since he knows that she, unlike some of the other women on board, is “straight as they come.”
As Shining Canyon is approached, the talk is all about “beaucoup corpses” and “370 clicks” and other bits of Vietnam-speak. To add to the strange trip, Ballard drops some drugs that send her into a dreamy state full of images of Earth. It’s a way of setting us up for a war movie, although, once the cops arrive, the red clay landscape and squat buildings — while evoking Mars as designed by William Elliott –lend the mood and atmosphere of a low-budget frontier Western. Right away, they find the camp is in a bad state, with the resident workers butchered and hung up, slaughterhouse style.
Safe in a jail cell with a few others, scientist Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy) explains that she had been traveling by weather balloon days before and had to crash-land nearby. But newcomer or not, this is a woman who apparently absorbs the meaning of strange phenomena quicker than Fox Mulder, yet takes her own sweet time passing on her knowledge to others. Besides, there are a few complications that intrude on the exposition, such as Williams himself, who cleverly takes Bashira hostage, but is soon on Ballard’s side as they have to face off with the real menace. Some nasty-looking banshee types, who look like they’re metal fans in a foul mood because they were shut out of the concert.
They’re virtually everywhere, and though they seem to have been taken over by some evil cosmic force in the form of red dust from the mine shafts, they can’t actually stop Ballard’s crew. They manage to plunge Braddock’s head on a stake, but otherwise, this is a zombified mob, led by the snarly big daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), that’s always one step too slow, one punch too little.
The less time Carpenter spends on the reasons why all hell broke loose at the mine and the more he spends on pure action and dumb-lug dialogue, the higher the movie’s fun quotient. The action, though, finally hits a wall during two terribly choreographed battle scenes on which even Corman might have ordered retakes. A repeated digital video effect, providing the p.o.v. of the unleashed evil force invading and possessing unsuspecting victims, is almost comically antique by today’s standards, but nothing surpasses the Goth-inspired makeup by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger for sheer goofy excess, confirming that this movie’s soul lies somewhere deep in a teenage wasteland before CD players.
Everyone in the cast is directed to act as if this could be the end of the colony — that is, dead seriously — and it only adds to the project’s retro feeling. Henstridge and Ice Cube play two sides of the same tough coin, and they pair nicely. Cassidy, Duvall and Grier efficiently depict the brain and brawn of the colony’s female domination. Statham’s horndog gunman is a sideshow from the big gals’ act.
Pic is literally heavy metal in its music — as always, by Carpenter himself, with bands Buckethead and Anthrax joining in on the jam session — and its interiors are given a sepulchral appearance by Gary B. Kibbe’s lensing. The exteriors look like they can only be taken as a spoof of past genre cousins.