For an artist whose work arguably defines the last gasp of a director-driven Hollywood, John Carpenter’s movies weren’t often received well out of the gate.
Titanic pictures like Halloween (1978), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988) are all regarded as classics today, but most of Carpenter’s movies struggled to receive any love upon release. The legendary critic Pauline Kael dubbed Halloween “stripped of everything but dumb scariness” in her review for The New Yorker. The Thing received ice cold reviews when it opened.
By the turn of the century Carpenter seemed burned out. From 2002 to 2010 he didn’t pick up a camera. Even after he returned to make The Ward, he seemed to relish retirement. These days he prefers to kick back, watch the Milwaukee Bucks, and play Halo rather than struggle through the labyrinthine process that is making movies.
But what was the movie that more or less started his retirement? In 2001, Carpenter co-wrote (with Larry Sulkis) and directed Ghosts of Mars.
It’s unclear what Carpenter was aiming for. The title is pure camp, but the movie appears too self-serious and sincere to be a tongue-in-cheek homage to the paradoxical tones of B-action horror, no matter what Ice Cube quips in his role as intergalactic outlaw Desolation. Ghosts of Mars reeks of early 2000s cheese, and it’s worth streaming before it leaves Hulu on May 31.
In the distant future of Ghosts of Mars, Mars has been mostly terraformed, giving the planet an atmosphere close to that of Earth. But the planet is still being colonized, with a network of outposts serving as the only bastion of civilization.
Martian police officer Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is found on an otherwise abandoned train. When she wakes, she’s called to deliver testimony on a failed mission to retrieve the convicted criminal James Williams, aka “Desolation” (Ice Cube). Framed in flashbacks as Melanie recounts events, what unfolds is a story of survival in the face of a mysterious case of ancient madness that spreads like a disease.
Also starring Pam Grier, Clea Duvall, and Jason Statham as a lunkhead horndog named Jericho, Ghosts of Mars is an ‘80s action movie dressed in early 2000s packaging. Thumping nu-metal scores flat and unmotivated action scenes that fail to prop up a weak script. It’s not that Ghosts of Mars is unambitious, but uninspired in its already meager objectives.
Arguably the film’s biggest problem is the contentious relationship between Henstridge’s Melanie and Ice Cube’s Desolation. The central question — Can a by-the-book cop cooperate with a criminal renegade? — simply doesn’t have enough juice. Ice Cube doesn’t appear until the 21-minute mark, and nearly all of their shared tension is rooted solely in the principle of their occupations. One works outside the law, one lives to uphold it, and that’s all they are as people. There’s little growth, which makes their begrudging respect at the end all the less earned.
But if a schlocky good time is what Carpenter wanted to deliver, Ghosts of Mars barely fits the bill. The bloodletting and action scenes is vanilla, effective only after a few bong rips. Ghosts of Mars just felt unwilling to try.
What’s most upsetting about Ghosts of Mars is maybe John Carpenter himself. The Carpenter name carries weight — Ice Cube said he agreed to star in the picture because it meant working with him — but it’s not enough to carry Ghosts of Mars to its thematic destinations. It feels like Carpenter phoned it in, and every element of the film suffers as a result.
There are still reasons to see Ghosts of Mars today. Even if it sits at the bottom of the director’s rich oeuvre, it’s still a John Carpenter movie. His whole body of work is practically mandatory viewing for genre enthusiasts. Though it lacks the careful precision of movies like Halloween and The Thing, or the skilled mayhem of Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York, there’s significance in its function as the movie to inspire the legendary director’s first decade of retirement. There isn’t a lot of heart and soul to be found in Ghosts of Mars, but at least the lights are still on.
Ghosts of Mars is streaming on Hulu until May 31.