Ghosts of Mars (2001) – John Carpenter

Natasha Henstridge leads a bit of a cult cast in the next John Carpenter film up for a look-see in the Sci-Fi Chronicles book. In a bit of an iffy film, and one that saw Carpenter at his most burnt out on the Hollywood scene, Henstridge stars as Lt. Melanie Ballard, a Mars police officer who is assigned to recover a prisoner, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) but soon finds herself in a battle for the planet.

Joining her is the legendary Pam Grier, Jason Statham, Joanna Cassidy and Clea Duvall.  And, as these stories go, they end up as fodder for the terrible things that are reclaiming the surface of the planet.

With some low-end, but honestly, well-used, special effects, Carpenter takes us to the Red Planet and unleashes a new kind of hell.

Arriving in a remote mining town to pick up Desolation, they find the town empty, it’s denizens butchered. That is until Jericho (Statham) stumbles upon the remaining citizens, they’ve maimed and mutilated themselves, facial scars, and amputations. We learn that they have become possessed by the spirits of the previous inhabitants of the planet, who will fight to keep it theirs at all costs.

A typical survival tale, set against a different backdrop, the film hints at possibility, but doesn’t completely realise it’s full potential. That, and I think Henstridge is terribly miscast in the film, she doesn’t seem comfortable in the film at all, and definitely doesn’t carry herself like you would expect a police officer.

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There are hints of cool things throughout the film, including an awesome score by Carpenter, in this film that he co-wrote with Larry Sulkis. In fact, I think that there is a really fun story in here, one that would work better if it had been padded out with a little more story, and exploration of the Martians.

I love Carpenter’s work and I find so many things in all of his work to enjoy, and revisit, and that includes this one. I love some of the cool imagery at work in the film, and hate the fact that we don’t learn more about the original inhabitants. I think a little more tension, a little more in the way of casting, and a little bit of a bump in budget could have turned this into a classic Carpenter film.

Instead we are left with something that is unrealised potential, a bit miscast, and doesn’t feel like it is all that it can be. Grier could have been used a little longer in the film, in fact she could have carried it all as the lead.

There is a rumour that this would have been an Escape movie featuring Plissken if L.A. hadn’t failed. I like that idea and it would have been very cool to see Plissken taking on a different kind of tale.

For all of that, Carpenter is still one of my favourite filmmakers.

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