Death metal fans and feminists in space! Doesn’t sound bad, does it? But 2001’s Ghosts of Mars is not, in any way, ‘good’. Or, indeed, ‘watchable’.
For a start, Ice Cube plays someone named James ‘Desolation’ Williams. Yep, you read that right. His nickname, which everyone calls him by even though it is the most rubbish nickname in the history of the world, is longer than his actual name. That’s how bad Ghosts of Mars is: even the names are utter pants. The only interesting thing about this film is the light it might shed on Carpenter’s feelings for Pam Grier. In Escape from LA she’s a ball-breaking transsexual who dies at the end, here she’s a ball-breaking lesbian in a long leather coat who winds up being decapitated and having her head shoved on a stick. Let us all take a moment to stroke our goatees in contemplation of what these facts might tell us about Carpenter’s psyche.
The plot is really stupid so I won’t waste much time on it, but it’s set in the not-too-distant future on, erm, Mars, which is controlled by a matriarchy that is in thrall to a mining cartel. Mining communities are being gripped by a mass psychosis that results in them dressing up like members of Scandinavian death metal bands and slaughtering anyone not likewise afflicted. It is not exactly a penny-drop moment when scientist Joanna Cassidy reveals that these people are possessed by ‘the ghosts of Mars’. The Martians have been awakened from slumber by all the tunnelling and what-not, and are now using their corporeal hosts to butcher the human invaders and to manifest their own brutal take on the ‘urban primitive’ aesthetic that was so popular in the 1990s – think daggers used as facial piercing adornments and severed hands as breast plates.
Natasha Henstridge (Lieutenant Melanie Ballard) and Pam Grier play cops leading a small team to such a community, unaware that, as Desolation puts it, ‘shit is getting real right here’. (Just so we’re clear, the dialogue is hopeless.) The team’s mission is to collect Desolation, a remand prisoner, and bring him back to the capital for trial. The story unfolds from Melanie’s point of view as she explains to a tribunal how she came to be found drugged and alone on a mining train set to autopilot.
The team’s assignment takes on shades of what Carpenter plainly hoped would be a classic Western when they attempt to rescue the few unafflicted people left and avoid getting dosed with ghost themselves. There is much running, and things exploding, and nasty blades being waved around, Jason Statham, and the self-mutilated townsfolk hurling missiles from rooftops along the main street as our rag-tag band of cops, survivors and criminals dash for the last train out of town. They make it, but Melanie orders the driver to go back so they can destroy the settlement. Alas, after this second assault, only Melanie and Desolation survive. Whoops, spoiled the ending!
The Martians don’t speak English, but are mad keen on howling, yelling, and rallying each other with their stirring cry of “Voar! Rob-trotewolf! Asidjowoewah!” This is much better than the dialogue Henstridge and Statham (as the significantly named Sgt Jericho) get in their scenes together. These consist of Jericho pestering Melanie to take advantage of his massive penis, and the glassy-eyed Henstridge attempting a facial expression in response. Bogart and Bacall it’s not, and the later ‘odd couple’ pairing of Melanie and Desolation is no more successful thanks to Henstridge having the emotional depth of an oyster. As a double-whammy non-payoff, not only has Melanie been telling the truth (I was hoping for a twist unmasking her as an unreliable narrator), but the ending – oh dear God, no! – leaves the way open for a sequel.
To sum up: Ghosts of Mars teaches us that John Carpenter is afraid of both sexy, sexy Pam Grier and the fashion sense of Finnish metallers Lordi. When Alfred Hitchcock said “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible”, this great steaming pile of asidjowoewah is not what he had in mind.