John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars DVD Review
Written by Eric Strauss
DVD released by Columbia Tristar Entertainment
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter
2001, Region 1 (NTSC), 98 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on December 4th, 2001
Ice Cube as James "Desolation" Williams
Natasha Henstridge as Lt. Melanie Ballard
Jason Statham as Sgt. Jericho Butler
Pam Grier as Cmdr. Helena Braddock
Clea Duvall as Bashira Kincaid
Joanna Cassidy as Arlene Whitlock
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is the second recent film John Carpenter has put his name on, and like the previous one, John Carpenter's Vampires, it is a mixed bag of mostly brainless entertainment.
On the matriarchy-dominated Mars of the future, a team of police officers are sent to a remote mining outpost to pick up a notorious prisoner accused of mass murder, but when they find more than they bargained for, the cops are forced to team up with the criminal against an enemy bent on destroying them.
Ice Cube (Three Kings) gets top billing as accused murderer James "Desolation" Williams, and he turns in a scenery-chewing performance that will either win over viewers with its charm, or completely alienate them with its smugness. Natasha Henstridge (Species) plays Melanie Ballard, the narrator of the film and underachieving second-in-command of the police unit. She is a solid center for the movie, an understated contrast to Ice Cube's bombast. She's come a long way from being the pretty face of Species, and shows she can handle not only a major role, but a physical one as well. Jason Statham (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), a Guy Ritchie favorite, steals most of his scenes as the lecherous officer Jericho, while cult favorite Pam Grier (Jackie Brown), indie regular Clea Duvall (The Faculty) and Henstridge's real-life love Liam Waite round out the police force. Duvall, who has the biggest supporting role, is a talented actress, but handles the gunplay and physicality awkwardly at times. Grier is wasted in a cameo-type part, and Waite's biggest contribution probably was recommending Henstridge after Courtney Love pulled out of the film.
An Internet Movie Database report said Statham was slated to play "Desolation" Williams before the studio decided it needed a bigger-name star. Statham is a talented actor, and the movie might have benefited not only from more of him, but from casting another talented actor in the Jericho role. Would the film have done much worse at the box office without Ice Cube?
Other cast members include familiar faces Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner) and Robert Carradine (Revenge of the Nerds) and stuntman Richard Cetrone as "Big Daddy Mars," the tattooed, roaring, chest-thumping leader of the Ghosts of Mars.
The cast lacks a dominant player like a Kurt Russell in The Thing or James Woods in Vampires, but overall, the ensemble turns in a solid performance.
The plot of the movie is basic, and after a slow start, the action gets under way, and then seldom lets up, and that is probably the movie's best quality. (The bulk of the film is told via flashback, as Ballard is testifying before an inquiry into the incident.) The police officers get to the mining camp, find it deserted except for headless, strung-up bodies, and their prisoner — accused of the same crime at another station — still safely locked behind bars. Soon they discover the true source of the killings — miners, possessed by the titular Ghosts of Mars. With their ride home missing in action, the police and their ragtag group of prisoners and survivors must outwit, outlast and outfight their seemingly endless foes.
The downfall of the story is mostly self-generated — the leader of the group, Ballard, is not a commander, and her plans often go horribly awry, leaving the audience cringing at some of her decisions. Such moves as running for the still-absent transport, and escaping only to turn back make her seem like an idiot, even if they are nominally within character. In addition, the characters themselves are not fleshed out — Waite's Descanso, the extra prisoners and Cube's sidekicks (Uno, Dos and, you guessed it, Tres) have "cannon fodder" written all over them. Other characters, with the exception of "Desolation" and Ballard, are one-dimensional (Jericho the lech, Duvall's Bashira the scared rookie, Cassidy's Whitlock the scientist-with-a-secret, etc.) and there is little attachment to them, with the exception of the charismatic Jericho.
On the other hand, the setpieces are spectacular, particularly given the film's apparently modest budget. The possessed miners mutilate and paint themselves, making for some interesting — if inconsistent — looks. The little touches are a true benefit to the film — look for one woman who wears a pair of severed hands as a brassiere — and enhance the creepiness of the deserted roughneck camp and red sands.
The fight scenes are (generally) terrific as well, with strong hand-to-hand choreography and gunplay. The Ghosts are mostly armed with serrated swords and very cool thrown razor discs, making for some memorable, make-you-cringe kills. Perhaps the only downfall is that most cannon-fodder characters are all killed in one early fight, leaving long stretches between action.
Carpenter has made claustrophobic films before (The Thing, for instance) and many reviews say this one is a sort of remake of his Assault on Precinct 13 (which I have not yet seen), but it is a little too slow through the middle to quite capture the intensity of The Thing, or a comparable thrill ride, David Twohy's Pitch Black. The flaws in pacing — with hurried fights, then long stretches of pondering the mystery of the Ghosts, then more hurried fights — are the knockout blow to any hopes this film had of being a hit, a trait shared with Carpenter's similarly flawed Vampires. Hopefully, this is not a sign Carpenter has lost the skill that helped him craft the never-let-up The Thing and the building tension of Halloween.
Video and Audio:
The video is strong and clear, with only a minimum of digital noise and lack of sharpness despite several scenes filled with red sand, dust or black sky (and the Ghosts' filtered perspective). Edge enhancement is also minimal. Colors are bright, a necessity given the red sand and many fires throughout the movie. There is a dingy feel to the primary sets — the characters are in a mining camp on another planet — and the picture brings out the details nicely. Anamorphic widescreen is approx. 2.35:1 and a full-screen version is available.
Dolby 5.1 surround is the only option, with English and French subtitles. The sound is also strong, with good use of the surrounds during the battle scenes, and good use of the bass throughout. Carpenter's metal-rock score keeps up the movie's frantic pace well, and the music and F/X seldom drown out the dialogue.
The highlight extra is an audio commentary with Carpenter and Henstridge. It is a very thorough commentary, with virtually no silence, more conversational than technical. Carpenter does the "play-by-play" with Henstridge providing the color commentary, and they clearly were recorded together. It is not the best Carpenter commentary, but above average, and it imparts a lot of information without bogging down in detail. The pair get off-topic quite frequently, but most of their anecdotes are related to what's on scene. Plenty of humor and enough of a look behind the curtain to keep fans entertained.
There are also three featurettes: "Video Diary: Red Desert Nights" (approx. 17 minutes), "Special Effects (SFX) Deconstruction" (approx. 6 minutes) and "Scoring Ghosts of Mars" (approx. 6 minutes). These are all made up of behind-the-scenes footage of varying quality, and have no interviews or narration, only the occasional graphic overlay as an identifier or explainer.
"Red Desert Nights" is a fairly interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes and offers some interesting footage of stunt preparation and makeup work, but without interviews or narration, it falls short of being a "documentary" type of featurette. The special effects featurette, as the title implies, is a montage of how various scenes were put together, including storyboarding, green-screen work, model work and CGI. Interesting, but too short and lacking in any kind of technical explanation. Perhaps most disappointing to Carpenter fans may be the featurette on the music score. Carpenter worked with Anthrax and Buckethead on the metal-rock music, and this featurette offers a look at their studio work, but no glimpse into Carpenter's composing.
Cast filmographies (but not biographies) for Carpenter, Ice Cube, Henstridge, Statham and Grier are included. Disappointingly, there is no trailer.
Ghosts of Mars is not a great film. It's not even Carpenter's best film. But it falls into the "Modern B Movie" category of such favorites as Pitch Black, and is a worthwhile, mostly entertaining entry in this check-your-brain-at-the-door-and-enjoy-the-ride genre. Solid acting, fine action setpieces and spinning razor discs — not a bad way to spend 90 minutes on a weekend afternoon.
The DVD is a lot like the movie, with solid video, audio and features, but falling just short of reference quality, and just short of a special edition.
Well worth a rental, it's the kind of film that, if you like it, you'll find yourself watching it any time you're in the mood for something fun.
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