#21 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
Vampires felt like a misstep. Ghosts of Mars feels like John Carpenter had lost all sense of what made him appealing as a filmmaker. A combination of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog (In SPACE!!!), Ghosts of Mars is pretty much a complete disaster. Carpenter gave an interview a decade after this movie’s release where he said that everyone had misjudged it. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. It was just a silly action movie that you’re supposed to enjoy as a silly action movie. I read that before revisiting Ghosts of Mars, eager to find another gem in his later career that everyone else scorns like Escape from L.A., but I’ve come to the conclusion that Carpenter’s ex post facto reasoning is just butt covering. The movie doesn’t read like a film trying to just be fun. The tone is just simply not there for that.
It’s within minutes that it’s obvious there’s something wrong with this movie. Ghosts of Mars decides to use an extended flashback structure, and while it’s annoying to start with it becomes outright unmanageable from a storytelling point of view. A train pulls into the major Martian city with only a single person on it, Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) who is handcuffed to a bed. She gets shuttled into a room a the matriarchal panel whom demand her tell the story of what happened. This felt wrong in the beginning, but by the end it’s completely obvious that this flashback approach adds nothing to the film. There’s literally no point to it, and all it manages to do is slow things down, fill the soundtrack with lots of unnecessary voiceover, and chop up the telling of the story, preventing any kind of narrative flow to form. I actively dislike this movie, but I’m completely convinced that if the hearing was completely cut and the story was simply told straight that it would greatly improve the film overall. It wouldn’t suddenly be good, but it would rise from outright bad to merely mediocre.
Anyway, Ballard was part of a small team led by Pam Grier’s Commander Braddock that was heading towards a remote mining town to pick up a notorious murderer Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) held at the local prison. When they arrive, the town seems abandoned with dead bodies hiding in different buildings. What the flashback structure does against the film here is kill any attempt to build tension. We’re constantly going back and forth as people spout exposition back and forth as well as the back and forth with the hearing. It’s maddening because there’s obviously a way to cut the existing footage in the film in such a way that it leads to a tense escalating series of events that lead to the reveal of what’s going on.
The only people who’ve survived are those in the prison behind locked doors, including Williams and a scientist, Dr. Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy) who locked herself up after arriving in the town earlier. She explains (in a flashback within the flashback) how she used a weather balloon to arrive and crash, but she obviously knows more. What happened was that Whitlock was part of a mining operation in another town that found a buried structure which released something that possessed the townspeople and made them all violent monsters. It takes forever to get this information, by the way.
What develops is a Rio Bravo type holdout in the jail, but it’s inept at every level. Instead of getting time with our characters like Hawks’ original where we fairly quickly get our small cast of characters into position and then give them opportunity to flesh out, we get a larger cast of characters that talk about the mechanics of holding off a zombie horde outside their door. To make matters worse, the way this fight with the horde plays out completely lacks any sort of imagination nor does it try to take advantage of the rules it sets up.
The titular ghosts of Mars move on the wind from one host to another, only released when the host is killed. So, what do these lone survivors of humanity in the wilderness of Mars do? Do they try to capture the people possessed by these spirits? No, they just fire guns and kill them, releasing the spirits. It completely lacks any sort of imagination around the situation that the movie itself sets up which screams to me of laziness. To make it even worse, Ballard leads a charge from the jail to the train station, completely exposed, without even trying on the radio to see if the train will be there, being completely surprised that it’s not there. It’s just one of those moments when a supposedly competent character does something so remarkably stupid just because the movie needs to happen.
This ends up feeling like the work of a bad filmmaker inspired by Carpenter rather than by Carpenter himself. There are contemporaneous quotes from him saying that he was getting tired of filmmaking altogether, pretty much only continuing on because of his positive working relationship with James Woods on Vampires, but that doesn’t seem like it was enough to actually get him invested enough with the whole process to make his next film actually good.
John Carpenter was tired of making movies by the turn of the century, and Ghosts of Mars feels like it without question.