Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
One of my favourite Facebook groups is The Dropped Dead Family Asylum of Horror which is managed by the incomparable JD Reel. During one of our recent chats, he brought up John Carpenter’s 2001 cult classic Ghosts of Mars, which follows police officers, criminals and others at a remote mining outpost on Mars who fend off a violent horde of humans “possessed” by ancient Martians. I mentioned that I did not like the film when I first saw it years ago, but I promised to revisit it and give it ye olde review treatment.
And that promise not only inspired this article, but a new segment called a “second chance review”. The premise is simple — I take a film I did not enjoy initially and had not seen in a while, and I check it out to see if my views had changed or remain the same. With that out of the way and a planet-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s take a second look at Ghosts of Mars in three blasts.
Blast #1 Things that Worked
One aspect of the film, and one of the main reasons it is worth watching, is the action. While I was somewhat underwhelmed by it upon first viewing, I found it pretty entertaining during my rewatch. It’s not the best choreographed action set pieces I have ever seen, but there is a wild B-movie bombast to it that truly scratched my action itch. I do have a soft spot for films where multiple enemies are mowed down with abandon and Ghosts of Mars does deliver on this. And watching Ice Cube dual wield AK47s will never not be super cool.
And speaking of the Cubed one, he really elevates proceedings as wrong-place wrong-time criminal James “Desolation” Williams. He is energetic and wisecracking in the role and gets all the best lines and action sequences. And he is also the only character with any kind of likeability and a measure of depth.
Continuing on the positives, the design of the Ghosts is visually interesting and reminds of a mix between Mad Max and Leatherface. The hulking Big Daddy Mars was easily a standout and the two-toned warrior that battles Natasha Henstridge’s Lt Melanie Ballard in the climax was also an inspired design. The bleak, dusty Western-inspired production design also made for a unique setting and John Carpenter’s metal soundtrack got me all pumped up for the action.
Blast #2 Things that Didn’t Work
And now on to the negatives, and there are a few. Other than Desolation the characters here are paper thin and there are WAY too many of them. We know that Henstridge’s Ballard periodically takes drugs, but we don’t why and nothing much else about her. And while the actress was lovely to look at, her performance is quite flat, one note and uncharismatic. Definitely not what you want in a lead. A not-bald Jason Statham is better as fellow cop Jericho but his awkward and frequent hitting on Ballard was cringe-inducing. And everyone else just seemed there to be cannon fodder, including criminally wasted Pam Grier and Clea DuVall, whose only character notes appeared to be “boss lesbian” and “quiet lesbian” respectively. The characters are so half-baked that their deaths land with all the impact of a wet wipe. And this is only exacerbated by the other characters not appearing to give a crap about them getting offed other than Desolation with his brother and crew.
I also think they could have done more with the possession mechanic. Characters like Uno and Dr Whitlock become possessed and the movie just moves on. Why not bring them back and have the other characters battle them? That would have been cool. And as a horror film Ghosts of Mars just does not work. There is no build-up of tension, no effective jump scares nor any creepy atmosphere. Even the gore feels more schlocky than shocking. The Star Wars-esque scene transitions also felt quite out of place.
The plot here is also pretty hollow. Unlike Carpenter’s They Live and The Thing there is no subtext nor underlying commentary. What you see is what you get and nothing more. And while I appreciated the time-bending story structure because the characters are less-than-engaging (other than Desolation) and what happens was not all that interesting the constant jumping back and forth felt more like exposition than revelation.
Blast #3 Final Thoughts
Ghosts of Mars fails as a horror film, has mostly generic characters and the plot is not much to write home to momma about. But with a scene-stealing turn from Ice Cube, fun action, a cool aesthetic and a slamming soundtrack it does succeed in being a decent Sci Fi action popcorn flick.
It is definitely better than I remembered and surprisingly I would be on board to check out a sequel or two.
Editor Jules’ Initial Score: 4 out of 10
Editor Jules’ Second Chance Score: 6.5 out of 10
Are you a fan of Ghost of Mars? How would you rate it? And you can check out more reviews from John Carpenter’s filmography below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an award-winning author. I say things like “13 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.