If its IMDB rating--currently at 4.8 out of 10--is any indication, John Carpenter's fanboys don't much like Ghosts of Mars (2001). Certainly, the film has been trampled by people who actually appeared in it (Ice Cube calls it "unwatchable") and it sent its director into a decade long retirement. So, yeah, it's a debacle. But is it any good? Well, I don't know that I'd go quite that far, but it's not as bad as all that. It's certainly a return to form of a type, given that its basic plot returns Carpenter to Assault on Precinct 13 and, ultimately, Rio Bravo.
The plot of the film finds badass cop Melanie Ballard dispatched with her team to escort accused murderer "Desolation" Williams to stand trial for his crimes. Melanie is actually second in command. Her superior on the team is Commander Helena Braddock. She's also paired with Sgt. Jericho Butler, a fellow badass. The other team members are rookies. Williams himself is being held at a remote mining outpost where scientists have made some kind of "significant" find. That find turns out to the "ghosts" of Mars, who are completely hostile to alien invaders. They "possess" unfortunate humans and drive them into a homicidal frenzy. Our heroes must make common cause with the prisoners in order to defend their position, then fight their way to safety...
Yeah. Same old shit from Carpenter. This is, what? His third or fourth version of this same story? Carpenter is a classic auteur in this regard, because he likes examining this narrative from different perspectives each time he makes it. This one has unusual flourishes. First: it's a science fiction movie. Being science fiction, Carpenter permits himself to change the basic conditions of the Rio Bravo scenario. The society this film postulates is a matriarchy, so the "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" ethos of the Hawks original is upended somewhat. The matriarchal nature of the film also marginalizes the male cops, and adds a certain amount of comedy to the way Ballard deals with Williams and his accomplices, who play at being badasses while she's the real deal. Second: This is very much the queerest of Carpenter's films. Pam Grier's Braddock is openly gay, while Kinkaid, one of the rookies, is played by Clea DuVall, who has a significantly queer screen presence. Third: it lets Carpenter add shadings to Ballard that might not play in a contemporary setting. Ballard is addicted to some science fictional drug, which makes her more like the Dean Martin character in Rio Bravo than the John Wayne character. It's a character flaw that comes in handy later in the movie, when it plays into the plot. Also new to this film, and something I'm sure that Carpenter has been dying to film forever, is a train sequence. The train may look futuristic, but the action is pure wild west. So is the movie, for that matter.
The structure of the movie is adventurous for Carpenter. It's assembled from nested flashbacks as Ballard tells a tribunal what happened to her team, and within this flashback narrative, Carpenter plays with the film's chronology. It's an expert piece of film editing, and what could be a narrative mishmash in other hands plays as a crystal clear narrative in which all the signposts agree with each other. Carpenter never lost his knack for composing the film frame even in his direst movies, and this is as expertly composed as any of those. At a basic level of formal film craft, this is pretty well-made. But formal film craft is only half the story.
This falters on two fronts. The first is production design, and here, you're seeing money tell the tale. This was a relatively cheap production and for all of Carpenter's savvy with the camera and in the editing room, it still somehow manages to look like an Empire Pictures direct-to-video cheapie from the 1980s. Carpenter has always managed to make attractive films within his (usually) low budgets, but this is a film that really needs an infusion of CGI or something. This is a movie that cries out for special effects, particularly on its beasties (who are mostly just smoke). The setting defeats the director. The other main problem is the cast. Natasha Henstridge is the lead, and she's okay for coming onto the movie a week before it lensed. She's always been more model than actress, but she has some action chops that make her credible in the action scenes. That's more than I can say for Ice Cube, who for all his complaints about Carpenter's handling of the movie doesn't help his case by being an essentially inert presence. You want someone named "Desolation Williams" to be a LOT more menacing than what you get here. Mr. Cube comes off as a lost puppy. Still, I suppose it's hard to blame Carpenter for this, given that Ice Cube was brought into the film for his supposed "bankability" and plays a part written for Jason Statham (which goes to show that producers often have zero foresight). Statham is still in the movie, mind you, playing the second lead and reminding everyone who watches it how much better he would have been as a character named "Desolation." There are tons of interesting actors in the background, but being in the background, they aren't allowed to seize the spotlight. Joanna Cassidy is terrific as the scientist, but her role is almost solely to provide exposition. Pam Grier makes an early exit before being allowed to do much of anything except come on to Natasha Henstridge. Clea DuVall is a red shirt. A great deal of this was out of the director's hands, it should be noted, and it's no wonder that Carpenter walked away from movies after this film.
I didn't much like Ghosts of Mars when I first saw it, but I was pretty down on Carpenter by then. I may have been letting a decade of disappointment color my perspective on the film, because it plays better to my eyes ten years later than it did at the time. Maybe I'm in a forgiving mood, but I don't think so. I think it's more a matter of perspective. I had no expectations this time, and I could see what's good in the movie. In the end, I don't know that the good overcomes the bad, but I think John Carpenter has made worse films. That's something.