Beginning as I mean to go on…
It is de rigueur to call Ghosts of Mars John Carpenter’s worst movie. But I’m here to tell you that it’s just not so. Ghosts of Mars isn’t his best movie, by any means. Nor in the top five. In fact, it’s probably in the bottom five. It’s really not great. But I kind of sort of almost like it (now there’s a recommendation!) and it edges out much of Carpenter’s other lesser fare–like Village of the Damned and probably Memoirs of an Invisible Man (which I’ve never seen), and even the disappointing The Ward–by being pure Carpenter. Though all the skillful handling of the material may be missing, Carpenter’s fingerprints are all over Ghosts of Mars, unlike the workmanlike Ward or the lifeless Village of the Damned. In fact, there are maybe too many of his fingerprints, as Ghosts often feels like a lesser retread of some of his earlier films. I’ve seen it described as “Assault on Precinct 13 on Mars,” but there’s also shades of Escape from New York/L.A. and even maybe a tiny bit of Prince of Darkness or The Thing in here.
Everyone knows the places where Ghosts falls down on the job. And there are many. In my notes from watching it there’s a scratched out line about them apparently not having the technology for hand-held radios in the 22nd century, but later on they do have radios, meaning that earlier in the movie I guess they just forgot to use them. The biggest problem that Ghosts has is that there’s no real suspense ever, just a lot of dull fight scenes and some lackluster gore (people possessed by Martian ghosts can apparently huck sawblades hard enough to sever limbs and heads). The characters are all pretty one-note, and any real exploration of the pseudo-colonial guilt/western-in-space plotline (with ghost Martians filling in the role of Indians) is mostly relegated to the backburner.
But there’s also more to like in Ghosts of Mars than its general reputation and lack of adroitness would lead you to believe. I mean, who doesn’t like an action/horror movie in which Mars is ruled by a matriarchy, boasting a cast that includes, but is not limited to, Pam Grier, Jason Statham, and the guy in the Merman suit from Cabin in the Woods playing “Big Daddy Mars?” The women are mostly at least as badass as the guys, and the two main characters are Ice Cube and the lady from Species. You won’t see that in a movie every day. Also, in this movie, John Carpenter basically invented Reavers a year before Firefly hit the airwaves. So there’s that. (Also, this really came out just a year before Firefly? Man, my perception of time is messed up.)
Carpenter is one of my favorite directors of all time, and when he hits he does it better than almost anyone else before or since. Ghosts of Mars isn’t a hit, but it’s also by no means the most egregious miss in his weird, uneven filmography. I’ll save that title for Village of the Damned, until I get around to seeing Memoirs of an Invisible Man and it proves me wrong.