Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Pam Grier, Jason Statham, Clea Duvall, Joanna Cassidy
Written by: Larry Sulkis, John Carpenter
Directed by: John Carpenter
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence/gore, language and some drug content
Running Time: 98
Date: 08/24/2001
IMDB

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Worlds Apart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Almost exactly a year ago I reviewed Godzilla 2000, a vintageman-in-a-rubber-suit Japanese monster movie that opened in multiplexesacross the country. After a summer of bland, inflated, half-witted"blockbusters," it was just the ticket. A real, honest-to-goodnessB-movie.

Now John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars comes along, again at just the right time of year. It has the courage to be a potent little B-movie in an era when most movies take B plots and inflate and dilute them to such an extent that the flavor disappears. Ghosts of Mars provides a full-fledged blast of undiluted B-movie zest.

Ghosts of Mars concerns a group of human colonists on Mars, which has been 85% transformed into an earth-like atmosphere and is run mostly by women. A team of cops consisting of Pam Grier, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, and Clea Duvall travels to an outpost to pick up and transport a dangerous prisoner named "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube). When they arrive, they find most of the population dead and headless, hanging upside down.

It turns out an alien species of spore has taken over the bodies of many of the colonists and turned them into (get this) pierced, goth, Road Warrior-like soldiers with painted faces and long hair. Unfortunately, when the good guys kill these goons, they set the alien spores loose, free to take over a new human host. So cops and bad guys must set their differences aside and team up to battle the greater evil.

Carpenter douses his story in grimness; many of the characters openly use drugs, including the main character played by Henstridge. The picture of life on Mars is anything but utopian; we're informed that characters gamble, hire prostitutes, and get high. On the plus side though, the film's heroes are all women and African Americans. (The white males are treated as ignorant scum.) It's a fascinating mix.

The plot borrows heavily from Carpenter's second film, the outstanding Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself was a remake of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Carpenter often falls back on Hawksian themes like camaraderie between men and women, and different layers of good and evil. Just the fact that he's aware of Howard Hawks and is able to pay tribute to him makes him a highly unusual filmmaker in today's world.

More than that, Carpenter is acutely aware of his position as a B-movie maker and has always proudly stuck to it, come what may. Other "genre" filmmakers have awkwardly tried to squirm out from under their pigeonholes with more mainstream fare, like Wes Craven and Music of the Heart, David Cronenberg and M. Butterfly and Sam Raimi and For Love of the Game, with less-than-favorable results.

But Carpenter proudly stands his ground, even in the face of a new-fangled industry that doesn't really know what to do with him. Indeed, Carpenter belongs to a lost era of filmmakers like Edgar G. Ulmer, Val Lewton, Budd Boetticher, Sam Fuller, and Andre de Toth; filmmakers whose job it was to fill that 65-minute space before the main feature and did so extraordinarily well.

I wish I could say Ghosts of Mars stacks up with Carpetner's best work, but it lacks in a few key areas. Firstly, neither Henstridge nor Cube (who has been extraordinary elsewhere) seems able to suggest the humanity or humor that Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges, or James Woods brought to earlier Carpenter efforts like Escape from New York, Starman, or Vampires. Secondly, it features an improbable plot twist near the end. After several of the principals finally escape the deadly compound, they decide to go back and risk their lives to blow the place up. Perhaps it's a suggestion of an appropriately Bush-era style ending?

Nevertheless, images of Pam Grier striding around the surface of Mars with a ground-length leather coat, Cube blasting aliens with a semi-automatic in each hand, and Henstridge kung fu-ing baddies will stick with me. And someday -- hopefully sooner than later -- when Carpenter gets his career retrospective at the Castro, I'll be in line to see this one again.

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