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Ghosts of Mars
Savant Blu-ray Review

Ghosts of Mars
2001 / Color / 2:40 anamorphic widescreen / 98 min. / Street Date March 31, 2009 / 28.95
Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Richard Cetrone, Rosemary Forsyth, Liam Waite, Duane Davis, Lobo Sebastian, Rodney A. Grant.
Gary B. Kibbe
Production Design William Elliott
Film Editor Paul C. Warschilka
Original Music Anthrax, John Carpenter
Written by Larry Sulkis, John Carpenter
Produced by Sandy King
Directed by John Carpenter

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I'm not sure when John Carpenter ran out of ideas that truly interested him, but 2001's Ghosts of Mars is an almost depressingly misspent effort. The story takes place on Mars but is basically a siege movie that could take place in the Wild West, an African colony or even in a disused inner city police station, as Carpenter already did for his first all-35mm feature, Assault on Precinct 13. That loving tribute to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, was probably chosen because it could be produced with a minimum of resources. Many great directors have made sophomore efforts much less accomplished than Carpenter's Assault; the depressing thing is that 25 years later he's still recycling the same tired ideas.

A special Martian train drops several police officers off at the mining town of Chryse, to pick up Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) a criminal accused of mass murder. Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) leads the heavily armed group, which includes Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge of Species) and Sgt. Jericho Butler (Jason Statham of Crank). They find most of the outpost deserted and its recreation center hung with headless corpses. In the jail, Williams and several other prisoners are untouched. One of them is Dr. Arlene Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy of Blade Runner), who explains that her unsealing of an underground Martian tomb released a dormant, parasitic Martian life form. Humans infected by the drifting red gas become savage zombies, mutilating their own bodies and forming an army to destroy the human "invaders". The police squad has no choice but to band together with Desolation Williams' criminal associates. The bloody siege at the jailhouse takes a heavy toll. Lt. Ballard must be left for dead when she becomes infected by the Martian entity, which can move from host to host. Can the cops hold out long enough to escape when the train returns for them?

Ghosts of Mars is even more like Rio Bravo than Assault on Precinct 13 with familiar tropes tossed in from other Carpenter pictures. The gaseous tide of red mist is reminiscent of The Fog; when not doused in metal rock, the soundtrack throbs with Carpenter's own minimalist music. The beheaded corpses remind us of an off-camera situation in Howard Hawks' original The Thing from Another World.

If one substitutes vampires for zombies, the Martian menace is indistinguishable from Ib Melchoir and Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. The zombie horde is yet another boring group of zombies with access to punk rock makeup and costume designs. The possessed workmen supposedly file their teeth into points and mutilate themselves at the command of the Martians within -- but why the fancy airbrushed face paint? The amorphous "wild Indian" bad guys in the low budget Assault could be forgiven film but these Road Warrior wannabe zombies just don't make it. Carpenter punctuates the film with interchangeable battle scenes, each an indifferent collection of random action. After all the build-up the zombies are revealed as pitiful fighters, shot and stabbed by the dozen. The cops shoot off a lot of ammo, though. The movie's real reason-for-being is to present as much gunplay as is possible.

The painfully stale banter kills any hope of interesting character development. The human defenders appear to compete to see who can say the most idiotic "tough guy" tag line:

"Time's up. Time to stay alive."

"That's the second time I've saved your life." / "Yeah, run a tab."

Fave actress Pam Grier is on screen only long enough to remind us that she needs careful direction in her line readings, as Quentin Tarantino gave her in Jackie Brown. Carpenter doesn't bother; he's too busy making every character play a variation on John Wayne. Natasha Henstridge isn't at all bad as the pill-popping trooper who forms the alliance between cops and crooks; the gag where her drug use makes her temporarily "possession proof" isn't developed as well as it could be.

Ice Cube fares best with the thin material; given a chance, the camaraderie between his corny Desolation Williams character and Henstridge might have amounted to something. Jason Statham gives solid support, battling zombies and making multiple passes at the beautiful Henstridge.

As in Carpenter's The Thing, almost everybody dies. Tough guy Carpenter wants the killings to erase characters large and small without sentiment, and omits scenes where survivors show the slightest concern. If Carpenter doesn't care that his people are chopped up by flying blades, why should we? The trendy nihilism does nothing for the movie whatsoever; we feel like we're wasting our time.

As expected, Carpenter puts together a cleverly efficient production. The Martian surface and most of the train scenes are done with miniatures. We don't mind greatly when Mars is limited to a red landscape under a dark sky (the film had to be made entirely at night) and some excellent matte shots. We can tell that the director got the maximum from his budget. Ghosts of Mars evokes the off-world setting of Philip K. Dick's books about miserable Martian colonists, suckered into emigrating through advertising back on the crowded Earth. That's established well enough, but the film immediately becomes a derivative zombie tale that has no special relationship to its Sci-Fi setting.

As a final annoyance, Carpenter tells the entire story as testimony during Natasha Henstridge's interrogation back in the Martian capitol. The movie continually stops and starts for various flashback sidebar scenes. Someone will come back from a patrol and his report will cue a flashback to what happened. This narrative device not only becomes distracting, it spoils much of what we see by letting us know that the "narrator" will survive to tell the tale. Ghosts of Mars moves in fits and starts. Only a few performance grace notes are allowed to soak through the macho posturing and repetitive action scenes.

I missed both Ghosts of Mars and another Sci-Fi thriller that came out more or less at the same time. Maybe Red Planet will be better.

Sony's Blu-ray of John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars looks very good in this crystal-clear HD transfer. Colors are bright, the image is sharp and the effects and miniatures all look great (with the exception of the fake-looking Red Mist carrying the Martian parasites).

Carpenter hosts a commentary with Natasha Henstridge, who joined the show only a week before shooting began. Behind-the-scenes video comprises the Red Desert Nights making-of featurette, and a piece on the music recording sessions shows Carpenter working with the band Anthrax on some of the heavy guitar cues. A special effects comparison deconstructs the model and digital matte scenes to show what's real and what's not in the film's convincing Martian train scenes.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Ghosts of Mars Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge, Video Diary: Red Desert Nights, The Music Behind the Movie featurette, Special effects Deconstruction
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 4, 2009

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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