Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ghosts of Mars (2001) - FilmReview

Can they survive the ghosts of Mars?

Escape From Mars

Director and writer John Carpenter's work has given us some of the best movies in the last forty years. A master of scifi and horror, who can forget Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, Starman, or They Live. Sadly, Ghosts of Mars was seriously underrated by critics and fans, failing to earn enough at the box office and being heavily criticised for being "distressingly amateurish" and an "embarrassing disaster". But is it really that bad?

In truth, it isn't the best movie in Carpenter's catalogue. That said, I do enjoy it for what it represents: a fun and violent action flick that doesn't take itself too seriously. I couldn't disagree more with the "poor set designs" and "hammy acting" accusations. The setting is a simple one, kept to a minimum for maximum impact, and the acting isn't meant to be serious.

I have read that the script was originally intended to act as a Snake Plissken sequel, Escape From Mars, but the idea was changed due to the failure of Escape from L.A. to make a profit.

"Let me put it this way. Maybe I'd sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth. But we're not on Earth"

The film is set on a terraformed Mars in 2176 AD at a time when the planet has long been colonised by Humans. "640,000 people now live and work at far-flung outposts all over Mars, mining the planet for its abundant natural resources". The problem is, during one of these mining excavations, an alien tomb is unearthed and Martian spirits belonging to a now dead warrior race are free to possess the living. Miners who aren't taken over are butchered and beheaded.

Lt. Melanie Ballard (played so brilliantly by Natasha Henstridge) is on an assignment to collect a criminal known as James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) from a cell in a Martian mining town, Shining Canyon, and deliver him into the hands of the authorities. She isn't alone in this task, however: joining her are officers Sergeant Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), and rookies including Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall). Sergeant Butler spends most of his time either coming on to Ballard or unlocking doors.

A gypsum (a soft sulfate mineral) mine near Albuquerque, New Mexico was chosen as the location for filming. To give it that Red Planet look, colouring had been used on the mine's rocks.

Upon arriving at the colony, Ballard and her colleagues are at first greeted by a ghost town. Instead of a bustling community, there is nobody in sight. Eventually the team locates a number of decapitated bodies and heads on spikes. It isn't long before they are attacked by a possessed army of miners who have mutilated their own flesh. In a style similar to that of Carpenter's Assault of Precinct 13, we end up with a siege as the newly-arrived officers and a bunch of survivors - which include "Desolation" Williams and three of his associates who came to Shining Canyon to rescue him - attempt to survive the onslaught and escape.

The drugs do work...

One of the things we learn is that when a Human host dies, the Martian spirit will seek a new body to possess; this happens often, and at one stage Ballard is consumed by one of the ghosts, forcing the other survivors to take her outside for their own safety. Sergeant Butler, however, gives her a goodbye gift: he places a pill in her mouth, one of the narcotics she carries around with her in a little silver locket. This trip seriously screws with the alien presence inside of her, allows Ballard to see through the eyes of the spirit and understand the history of these Martian warriors. The drug also helps the young woman to repel the invader, and it exits via her mouth as a red mist before dissipating.

This gives Ballard a chance to rejoin her group and make contact with the train that will lead them to safety.

Love for Ballard

It's been said that Michelle Yeoh, Famke Janssen and Franka Potente were originally considered for the role of Ballard, yet they all turned down the role. The part eventually went to singer and actress Courtney Love, although she departed the project due to injury. In my opinion Famke Janssen would have been an excellent choice. As it is, Henstridge's casting is a welcome one, the Species star is one of the best things about Ghosts of Mars.

What followed after Mars?

It is a shame that this movie was a box office financial failure, a sequel starring Henstridge would have been incredible, perhaps leading a group of men, women and children through Martian landscape in a quest to find a safe zone from the Ghosts. Mars has been quarantined, so no help expected from Earth. Even the thought of leaving the Red Planet is a risk - what if any of the Ghosts escape with them? So many possibilities...

As for the director, John Carpenter took a break from regular film-making after Ghosts of Mars. His next big project would come in 2010 with The Ward. When asked in an interview why such a long gap, he replied, "Man, I was burned out. Completely burned out. I just couldn’t do it anymore, I had to stop. I looked at myself and said you know, I’ve been working constantly. I’m like a drug addict — I need a little bit more of a life. It stopped being fun, it stopped being glorious. I’d fallen out of love with cinema. So I had to rekindle it".