Ghosts of Mars

(John Carpenter, USA, 2001)


Modern cinema history is littered with the sad stories of filmmakers who began believing what their most devoted fans and critics said about them – and then self-consciously tailored their work accordingly.

When John Carpenter dreamt up Ghosts of Mars, he must have conceived it as the ultimate gift to his aficionados. Every single element in it belongs to his earlier work.

A tough law enforcer, Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), reluctantly teams up with a vicious criminal, Desolation (Ice Cube), to hold back a marauding mob of baddies, as in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). In the air are formless spirits, reminiscent of The Fog (1980) and Prince of Darkness (1987), which take possession of the main characters and make everyone paranoid, as in The Thing (1982).

The list of self-references goes on and on. But no amount of recycling can disguise the fact that this is Carpenter’s worst film, a bitter disappointment to those (like myself) who have championed him through thick and thin.

Nothing works in this travesty. The script by Carpenter and his regular collaborator Larry Sulkis establishes the intriguing premise of a matriarchal future, but this theme disappears almost as quickly as a wasted Pam Grier.

In a movie that bizarrely seems to be comprised of nothing but slow dissolves and laborious flashbacks-within-flashbacks, even the action scenes are lacklustre.

The latest craze in Cultural Studies departments around the globe is post-colonial horror – intergalactic or supernatural tales in which one species invades the land of another, and lives uneasily with the consequences. Spirits of various kinds are central to such films and their interpretation – undead traces of the past which never go away.

Although it is too easy to go allegory-crazy and read every second horror or space invasion film as a post-colonial treatise, Ghosts of Mars would seem to be the perfect specimen for such analysis. However, it is precisely here that Carpenter’s creative imagination most deserts him.

These ghosts who return to savage the colonists are rendered as bloodthirsty Goths from a kitschy Alice Cooper fantasy – they seemingly have no agenda other than to kill and dismember. And Carpenter gives the entire game away in a shameful scene where Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) exclaims: "This is all about dominion – and they don’t own this planet anymore!"

It is possible – albeit generous – to take this line as a parody of American gung ho manners. Indeed, the portrait of these soldiers and crooks rampaging through a land, a history and a culture they scarcely understand often seems like a blackly comic premonition of what happened in Afghanistan.

Carpenter, however, long ago traded a belief in politics (of the left or right) for a hip, flip kind of cynicism. Back in the era of Escape from New York (1981), this seemed a cutting edge, punk gesture of amorality. Now it is just a tired, lazy old tune.

MORE Carpenter: In the Mouth of Madness, Vampires, Village of the Damned

© Adrian Martin November 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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