Beyond the Slimy Wall: Ghosts of Mars
By Stephanie Star Smith
August 18, 2005
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
Ghosts of Mars
Seems like a certain portion of both the moviegoing audience and the critics is predisposed to hate everything John Carpenter puts out these days.
At least, that's the only explanation I've been able to come up with for why so much of Carpenter's work since the halcyon days of Halloween and Starman has seen only middling box office, regardless of the merits of the individual project. The same indifference greets such dreck as Escape From LA as it does such fine films as Prince of Darkness or They Live, or such great popcorn fare as Vampires.
Ghosts of Mars falls into this latter category.
Ghosts of Mars is set in 2176, when humankind has settled on Mars. The colonies have been established for some time, and terraforming has transformed the Martian atmosphere to a near-Earthlike environment. In fact, nearly everything on the planet has become Earthlike, up to and including criminal activity. The story begins with the trial of Lieutenant Melanie Ballard, a police officer up on drug abuse charges after her last assignment went horribly wrong. The story is told mostly in flashback, as Ballard tries to explain to the gathered magistrates what turned a routine trip to a remote mining colony to pick up petty crook and suspected murderer James "Desolation" Williams into a veritable bloodbath. And no, I didn't just give away the entire plot; you learn all this in the first ten minutes, long before we go into full flashback to pick up the story at the mining colony.
When Ballard and her team arrive at the colony, the place is strangely deserted; there doesn't seem to be anyone stirring about in a place where hundreds of people work and live. When the cops finally do find people, there's only a fraction of the colony's populace left, and they're all hiding out in the colony jail, along with Desolation Williams. It's not long before the visitors discover what it is that's gotten the colonists so spooked, and why their number has dwindled dramatically. Seems a few days prior, the miners had unearthed what seemed to be a prime archeological find: artifacts from a long-dead Martian civilization, an exciting discovery on a planet that Terrans have long thought never sustained life. Of course in an SF/horror film, no incredible discovery goes unpunished, and the colonists soon find that they have actually accidentally activated a long-dormant Martian defense system, which takes the form of ghostly soldiers who murder the invaders and then take over their bodies. Naturally, the no-nonsense cops think this is all bollocks; there must surely be a murderer in the colonists' midst that is responsible for all the mayhem, perhaps even Desolation Williams himself. Fortunately for the viewer, it's not long before they find out that the surviving colonists haven't gone round the bend, and that there is definitely something in the night that, appearance aside, isn't human and isn't any too friendly. Instead of a routine prisoner transport, the police find themselves in a life-or-death struggle to protect not only themselves but the surviving colonists, and that everyone, whether friend or foe in normal circumstances, must work together if any of them is to get out of the colony alive.
One of the many criticisms leveled at Ghosts of Mars is that with the story being told in flashback, there's little suspense to the proceedings, as the viewer supposedly knows up-front who lives and who dies. I disagree with this on a couple of levels. As I've said before in this column, knowing the outcome of a film from the start doesn't necessarily spoil the rest of the movie as long as the journey to reach the known destination is done with style and panache. Ghosts of Mars certainly has style and panache to spare, as the unfolding story provides more than enough suspense as to what's happening, what's going to happen, and who is going to be victorious on its circuitous route back to where the film opens.
But I also don't believe Ghosts of Mars gives away as much at the outset as some have claimed. Certainly once you've seen the entire film, you could probably say that yes, the film's opening gives away too much, but that's only after you've viewed the film. There isn't anything in the opening that specifically spells out what you're seeing, and someone who's just sitting down to watch the flick for the first time isn't necessarily going to come to the same conclusions, based just on the opening sequence, that are possible after seeing the entire movie. It's a simple thing to say, "Oh, yes, the film gives itself away in the first ten minutes" in hindsight, but I daresay few accurately predicted the majority of the plot whilst watching the flick their first go-round.
Another somewhat unfair criticism is that Ghosts of Mars is hardly John Carpenter's best work. To me, this is a specious argument; no auteur can be expected to be at the top of his or her creative energies all the time. Such an expectation goes absolutely against basic human nature; no matter how much the creative genius someone is, he's going to have bad days, just like the rest of humanity. As an example, if you think Alfred Hitchcock always created fantastic films, you should try sitting through Mr & Mrs Smith sometime. The good thing about creative geniuses, however, is that even when they are not at the top of their form, their output is generally miles better than the best offerings of less-gifted purveyors of the creative arts (I'm putting Escape From LA down to some bad sushi or the need for a mortgage payment and then pretending it doesn't exist). So is Ghosts of Mars on a par with Prince of Darkness? Of course not, but that doesn't automatically mean it's a lousy picture and not worth investing just over an hour-and-a-half of your viewing time.
Bottom line, if you don't sit down to watch Ghosts of Mars expecting to be blown away by creative genius, but instead are looking forward to a rollicking good popcorn film, then you won't be disappointed. The acting is more than serviceable, and the chemistry between Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube, whose Melanie Ballard and Desolation Williams are, for all intents and purposes, the two leads, is quite enjoyable, and they make for a winning team once they get down to the business of kicking Martian ghost ass and taking names. And there are enough fight sequences and explosions to delight the 12-year-old boy in all of us, all handled with the aplomb of an acknowledged horror master and presented with more than a few nice camera angles and interesting POVs. The ending, too, isn't entirely expected, even by those who would claim the audience knows exactly what's going to happen from the first few minutes of the film. The door was left open for a sequel, and while one doubts this will ever come to pass, a Ghosts of Mars 2 focusing on Henstridge and Ice Cube would certainly be a welcome change from the dreck that has been masquerading for horror in 2005 to date.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.