Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Joanna Cassidy, Pam Grier
Since the frequently useful Internet Movie Database is connected with Amazon.com, it's in their best business interest to suggest other titles that readers might like, if they like the film in question. This often results in some pretty strange recommendations -- but I have to say that their recommending last year's stupefyingly bad Red Planet for those who enjoyed Ghosts of Mars is right on target. The advertising assures us that John Carpenter is the "Master of Terror" (which will certainly come as a surprise to any number of other genre specialists) -- but the only terror I could find here was that anyone ever gave this project the go-ahead. Carpenter's had his share of cinematic debacles, but Ghosts of Mars may be the nadir of his career -- and if you've ever slogged your way through Prince of Darkness, you know that's saying something. As is often the case (think They Live), Carpenter starts off with an intriguing concept -- in this case, the accidental awakening of the spirits of a long-dead Martian civilization that take over the bodies of colonists from earth -- and then has little or no idea what to do with that concept. Inspiration or even mere development failing him, Carpenter here proceeds to dredge up bits and pieces of his earlier films -- especially Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and The Fog -- and pummel, cudgel, bludgeon them into Ghosts of Mars, whether or not they really fit. Not satisfied with this, Carpenter adds scads of impossibly bad dialogue coming out of the mouths of improbably bad actors and plot contrivances that either make no sense or can be seen coming a mile off. He covers it all with a thick layer of laughable special effects, unimpressive gore, and a wholly inappropriate, self-composed soundtrack of singularly undistinguished heavy-metal music. And then there's the film's head bad guy (I mean besides the screenwriters), identified in the credits as "Big Daddy Mars" (which sounds like he belongs in something called Martian Beach Blanket Bingo) and played by stuntman Richard Cetrone in black-and-white greasepaint. The concept here seems to be that ancient Mars must have been lorded over by the illegitimate offspring of one of the more colorful members of the World Wrestling Federation and Marilyn Manson. The very fact that the Martian forces are compelled to mutilate themselves by way of decoration (I've yet to figure out where they buy the black-and-white greasepaint) is a peculiar aspect of the film that -- like most everything else in the story -- is neither explained nor explored. Are the myriad body piercings and adornments a commentary on the modern society? If so, Carpenter never addresses it. If not, it's remarkably unclear why they're in the film at all. Unfortunately, that describes so many things and people in Ghosts of Mars that it's more the rule than the exception. Why, for example, is cult icon Pam Grier in this movie at all? She has a couple brief scenes before becoming a CGI head-on-a-stick effect. Who decided that Ice Cube could act? Or does Carpenter honestly think a bad Mr. T. impression constitutes acting? Why is the story structured as an elaborate flashback that frames even more flashbacks? Why, for that matter, are some of the flashbacks featuring policewoman Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) -- in which she says she wasn't there, but this is what she was told -- followed by a flashback where she very much seems to be there? The list goes on, and it all adds up to one sloppy movie that makes little sense and has even less dramatic validity. Some critics have called it "the worst film of the summer," which obviously means that they didn't see Pootie Tang. Even at that, it runs a close second.