What do you do when you're 80 million miles from home and locked up for a crime you did not commit? How about if your jailers are a dozen scared humans under attack by a horde of alien zombies? If you're Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), you devise a way out, arm yourself to the teeth and kick some alien ass.
Thus, forms the first major turning point in John Carpenter's GHOSTS OF MARS, a rollicking, ass-kicking, gun-blazing, trash-talking, Pam Grier-starring good time. This, like many great Carpenter movies past (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) is a movie about a tiny, disparate "us" versus an overwhelming multitude of "them." Other filmmakers do it (think everything from OUTLAW JOSEY WALES to ALIENS; Carpenter himself cites Cy Endfield's great ZULU as a direct influence), but no one does it quite like Carpenter.
The tale unravels through an interrogation of Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge, always great, usually too good for the movies she's in, but pitch perfect here) whose mission to pick Williams up for his trial ends at the ghost town that was once the Shining Canyon Mine of Mars circa 2176 AD. She has returned alone, without her crew (including the iconic Pam Grier, the charismatic Jason Statham and subtly effective Clea DuVall as one of two ill-fated rookies); the counsel wants to know why; and Melanie tells them, and us, her story through a series of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks.
We learn that the team arrived only to find the colony pretty much abandoned. Something definitely went wrong here and their mission becomes finding out what happened and, later, trying to stay alive enough to make it back to tell about it.
Joanna Cassidy, who projects toughness and intelligence despite having one of the film's weakest parts, plays the scientist that accidentally unleashed Martian spores that take over human hosts and turn them into bloodthirsty, protogothic zombies led by the seemly "unkillable" Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone, totally game). You can't kill these things because guess what? They're SPORES! They can always infect another body. Carpenter's (and co-writer Larry Sulkis's) wisecracks throughout keep the tone light and the fun rolling, so though at times it feels a little goofy, you've just got to go with. And I did.
As the humans get picked off one by one and the little group grows smaller, the mission loses focus as everyone just tries to stay alive. The pace never slows from beginning to end and the steadily decreasing ragtag group's fight backed by Carpenter's (with Anthrax) pulsing score is one hell of a ride. There's no question that Lt. Ballard and Desolation, who share some badass exchanges and the healthiest chemistry since Kurt Russell and Keith David, are the gutsiest and most skilled. But being captor and convict has its drawbacks. They have to work together, but what happens if they get back? Will she turn him in?
Yes, GHOSTS OF MARS has some flaws the train coming to and from the mine is impossibly slow; a couple of characters' deaths are confusingly quick; and Melanie sports some mighty powerful spore repellent in her locket -- but since it doesn't take itself to deathly serious, the flaws kind of go with the territory. Carpenter is many things, but most of all he is genuine. He shuns phoniness and self-importance. This attitude bleeds into the stories and characters and creates a totally unique, Carpenterian experience that recalls not only some of his earlier movies, but a whole different kind of filmmaking -- one scarcely practiced anymore. GHOSTS OF MARS is spawned not from a committee or a string of development execs, but is Carpenter's own idea of a good time in a darkened movie theater. There are few things, and even fewer movies, you can say that about these days, which is why when a Carpenter movie comes around, I will always be first in line to see it.
Reviewed Format: Wide Theatrical Release
Stars: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Richard Cetrone
Writer: John Carpenter, Larry Sulkis
Director: John Carpenter
Distributor: Screen Gems