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John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/31/2009

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/19/2009

Please forgive me if I alternate between fawning and complaining in this review. For you see, John Carpenter was the first director who really made me sit up and pay attention to the art of filmmaking. With his seminal film Halloween, Carpenter demonstrated to me how the director's use of lighting, camera angles, music, and pacing can craft a film and manipulate an audience. I've been a fan of the man's ever since. And it's hard to believe that he hasn't made a feature film in nearly a decade. But, when one watching his last theatrical release, Ghosts of Mars, it can be easy to understand why.

Set 100s of years in the future, Ghosts of Mars takes place on...well, Mars. The red planet is being used for mining, and the atmosphere is being "terraformed" so that the air will be breathable. All of this is being done by a government which is run by women. (Carpenter loves his radical political ideas.) As the story opens, a train pulls into the city of Chryse carrying just one passenger, Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) of the Mars Police. She's asked to recount her story, and describes how her team -- Commander Braddock (Pam Grief), Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), Michael Descanso (Liam Waite), and Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall) -- was sent to a small mining town to pick up known criminal Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). Upon arriving in the town, they find it deserted, with Williams locked in his cell. Further investigation reveals corpses in many of the buildings. The officers soon learn that the local miners have gone berserk and are now homicidal and irrational. Trapped in the small police station, the group must find a way back to the train and to safety.

Ghosts of Mars is an odd film, as it sort of plays like a compilations of Carpenter's greatest hits. The police officers trapped in the police station is reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13. The look of the enraged miners and their use of primitive weapons reminded me of the locals in Escape from New York, and the idea of the locals going crazy hints at In the Mouth of Madness. The force which can overtake unsuspecting victims is right out of The Thing. Even the flashback to how all of this started has a shot which could have easily been in The Fog. The film can't be considered a homage, as Carpenter was the co-writer. Can you homage yourself? (And, if so, can they show that in a movie?)

The mistake here is that Carpenter is simply reminding us of better movies. For all of its energy, Ghosts of Mars is a hopelessly cheesy movie. This is a sort of pulp western played out on the red backdrop of Mars, and all of it is corny, even for a science-fiction movie. The dialogue is stilted and everyone speaks in cliches. While some may not have a problem with this, I found the story to be too vague and all over the place. "Ghosts" leave a mine, possess humans, and make them look like Marilyn Manson? How does that work. The leader of the murderous mob, dubbed "Big Daddy Mars" (played by Richard Cetrone), doesn't necessarily look like a super-killer. Instead, he looks as if he wandered out of a Nine Inch Nails concert circa 1994. Thus, he's more silly than scary. The movie never explains why the "ghosts" make elaborate art out of scissors. I wanted to learn more about that.

The overall feel of Ghosts of Mars is reminiscent of Carpenter's Escape from L.A. -- it's full of action scenes and eccentric characters, but it's rarely interesting. The movie isn't unwatchable, and Carpenter deserves kudos for the way in which he shoots the action scenes and his decision to have some heavy metal heroes create the soundtrack. The problem is that, visual style aside (no one shoots night-time like Carpenter), this doesn't feel like a Carpenter film. Instead, it feels like any run-of-the-mill sci-fi/actioner which one would catch on late-night cable. (Carpenter has chosen to use an editing style involving multiple dissolves which is just annoying.) Ghosts of Mars won't haunt you. In fact, you may not remember it the next day.

Ghosts of Mars reminds me of a song by the band Hum on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only the slightest hint of grain and no defects from the source material. The image's clarity has lent it an impressive amount of depth, which is only aided by Carpenter's shooting style. This element alone puts this transfer up and over the quality of the DVD. The colors are good, and although the film takes place entirely at night, the image is never too dark. The Disc offer a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This track really brings a lot to the film, as it has a very muscular sound. The stereo effects are quite good and are very effective when the team is investigating the town. Likewise, the surround effects really come into play during the mob scenes. Subwoofer is solid and drives home the explosions. The rocking soundtrack receives excellent reproduction here.

The Ghosts of Mars Blu-ray Disc contains a few extras. WE begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge.  "Video Diary: Red Desert Nights" (17 minutes) is, as stated in the title, as on-set account of the film's production, documented on video. This is one of those "fly on the wall" documentaries, as there's no narrative here, simply a series of shots showing how different scenes were done. There are some comments from cast and crew, but no official interviews. "Specail Effects (SFX) Deconstruction" (7 minutes) shows how SFX shots go from storyboards to the finished shot. "Scoring Ghosts of Mars" (6 minutes) shows Carpenter, Steve Vai, Buckethead, and members of Anthrax laying down tracks for the film.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long