For the past 20 years or so, John Carpenter has been making the same movie. In this movie, humans are menaced by brutal, cabalistic entities. Sometimes, this movie is very good (Halloween , Escape from New York , and The Thing ), sometimes it’s less good (The Fog , Christine ), and sometimes, it’s just what John Carpenter does and you accept it for being that (They Live  or Vampires ).
John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars falls into this last category. It delivers to expectations, more or less, but it’s never amazing (there’s no “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” moment, as when the Thing, as a human head, skittered across the floor on suddenly sprouted legs), and it’s often foolish, occasionally tedious, and plainly derivative (lifting from Carpenter’s films as well as others). It is what it is. And for some of us, that’s more than enough. JCGOM features the standard Carpenterian elements: predictable plot, low-budgetish effects, awkward pacing, campy-corny-cool characters, way too earnest dialogue, and decent, edging-toward-progressive politics. It also has—and this is no small thing—Ice Cube as James “Desolation” Williams. It turns out that he is a most excellent stand-in for Carpenter’s favorite charismatic go-to guy, Kurt Russell.
The story unfolds as flashback, narrated by Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a young and lovely cat-suited member of the Mars Police Force, and survivor of a bloody and explosive run-in with the titular ghosts, in the year 2176. Much like Ripley at the beginning of Aliens, Melanie is questioned by a panel of imperious inquisitors (coldly administered by Rosemary Forsythe). As she explains what happened in the city of Chryse, it becomes clear that: 1) her sense of narrative pacing is decidedly slow; and 2) these ghosts have not launched their attack without provocation.
Indeed, we see that they are “awakened”—and consider that term inflected in the most ominous way—from their centuries-long slumber by those ever-intrusive humans, come to Mars to terraform it (and you know that terraforming someone else’s planet, even if you don’t exactly know if there is a someone else, is always a bad idea). This means that, not only are they traipsing around where they shouldn’t be; they’re also drilling, colonizing, and generally messing with a place where they have no “right” to do so (the connections/disconnections between rights and what’s right are, of course, a recurrent theme for Carpenter).
Being ignorant is not a good enough excuse for such bad behavior, and so the humans are punished severely by the ghosts, who have taken over human miners’ bodies. So, there are two classes of human-looking creatures: human-humans, and ghost-infected humans. The latter—accompanied by a vintage ‘80s action-flick guitar score, courtesy of John Carpenter Himself—tend to mutilate, decapitate, and eat human-humans, or sometimes turn them into themselves, ghost-infected humans, a la Night of the Living Dead or your average vampire movie. It’s always better to absorb your enemies than to annihilate them, more efficient to turn them into more of you than to leave rotting corpses behind.
The human-humans are cops (and this is at least somewhat ironic in a John Carpenter film, where the heroes mostly battle cops), sent to pick up a prisoner, the aforementioned convict Desolation Williams, locked up for decapitating a bunch of people (of course, you soon learn that he has done no such thing: he may be a hardcore criminal, but he’s no butcher). The cop-in-charge is Helena Braddock (Pam Grier, who also appeared in Escape from LA), who is a tough, no-nonsense leader, and good to her rookies. Her mission squad members, introduced as they’re riding on a train to Chryse, are appropriately dour, hard-bodied, and motley. In addition to Melanie (who, we learn immediately, is a drug addict: she gets high off some crystally-powdery-hallucinogenic substance she keeps in a locket on her neck, as they’re cruising down the tracks), the crew includes tough nut Jericho Butler (Snatch‘s Jason Statham), rookies Bashira Kincaid (the appealingly surly Clea Duvall) and Michael Descanso (Liam Waite), and train engineer McSimms (Peter Jason, another Escape from LA veteran). They’re soon joined by a mining engineer they find hiding in the jail, Whitlock (played by the magnificent Joanna Cassidy): it’s her function to inform the cops of the ghost’s emergence during a drilling expedition she had the misfortune to oversee.
Whitlock’s absurd story is supported by what the cops see: Chryse is eerily deserted; Desolation is locked up in a cell, alone; and, as if on cue, the ghost-infected humans make a very noisy entrance. They are led by a fellow listed in the credits as Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), who speaks not a word, but roars a lot and looks like Marilyn Manson on steroids. The ghouls’s rituals include stabbing and scratching and piercing themselves, putting their victims’ heads on sticks, and cavorting wildly by the light of bonfires and torches, actually looking a lot like those post-apocalyptic cretins in Road Warrior. They’re obviously into decadent, sensual pleasures, but nothing they do really looks like fun. As they roam up and down Chryse’s main drag, bellowing and thrusting their fists in the air, the human-humans hide out in the jail, scavenging for materials and weapons and wondering what to do until the train makes its scheduled return to pick them up . . . sort of like the doomed Antarctic science crew in The Thing.
And oh yes, there’s another issue: when one of the ghost-infected humans is killed, his or her ghost leaves the body and looks for the nearest, most susceptible host, a threat visualized by a distorted lens effect, sort of like the demon POV shot in Fallen or the alien’s in The Hidden. The most striking result of this plot point is that, when Melanie is so threatened, quick-thinking Jericho gives her a quick dose from her locket-stash, hoping that it will scare the ghost right out of her. Then he and Desolation dump her outside the building, leaving her to cope with hallucination and the possession all on her own. It’s all pretty demented and pseudo-subversive, not to mention the loopiest visual effect in the movie, but it does have a certain anti-establishment air about it: Whoa dude! Do drugs to prove your humanity and save your life!
For all the hokiness of the effect—silvery-liquidy swirlies wafting about Melanie’s knocked-out head and rolled-back eyeballs, recalling those little tweety birds in cartoons—this bizarro moment is just the sort of thing that makes John Carpenter’s movies weird and welcome events, for aficionados, anyway. He makes genre pictures with a loving vengeance—mostly action and horror movies—he doesn’t really use generic tools or subscribe to generic values. Carpenter’s movies are paradoxical, simultaneously obsessive and goony, unabashedly prosaic but relentlessly personal, wildly inventive but also strangely mundane, especially when it comes to FX. Indeed, in Ghosts of Mars, it’s as if the last 20 years of effects technologies haven’t happened.
And yet . . . Carpenter’s films—Ghosts of Mars included—maintain some tenuous touch with the real world, its political and social issues in particular—that eludes the work of many other, better-funded, better-respected, and better-known artists. Case in point: Steven Spielberg’s much-discussed A.I. Of course, Carpenter’s movie won’t cause nearly the hubbub that Spielberg’s did, but its questions about identity, community, and moral responsibility are more profound, and its answers far more ambiguous.
Here, most of these questions and answers have to do with Ice Cube’s Desolation, the ideal stoic and ironic hero, sure of himself, good at what he does, and fiercely insightful. Though Melanie is surely plucky and gets the most screen-time, she just doesn’t have the convict’s magnetism, ingenuity, or hard-won ferocity. Carpenter’s attraction to the outlaw-hero is infamous (think: Vampires‘s Jack Crow, Escape‘s Snake Pliskin, They Live!‘s Nada, Big Trouble in Little China‘s Jack Burton, even Starman and Elvis, all on the margins, looking to bust their way in or better, seriously mess with those who want to keep them out). But with Desolation, he’s come on a character that remains baffling and threatening to the straights (authorities), even when he’s been somewhat won over (but far from rehabilitated) by the forces of “good,” as embodied by vavoomy Melanie (she’s not quite on the level of Adrienne Barbeau in Escape from New York, but, let’s just say that Henstridge serves a specific and unsurprising purpose).
Still, Desolation is no pushover. He distrusts cops by definition, and when his boys come to rescue him—Uno (Duane Davis), Dos, (Lobo Sebastian), and Tres (Rodney Grant)—the four of them are entirely willing to kill everyone else in order to get the hell out of Dodge. Inevitably, of course, the human-humans must all band together, because the monsters constitute an acutely daunting force. Not so much physically (their war-whoopy leaping about is old hat), but, like most of Carpenter’s villains, they pose a genuine threat to what it means to be human.
The Martianized-humans are a “faceless” mob, save for super-white-faced Big Daddy (whose generic bad-guyness hardly makes him stand out): they have no clear identity, no voice, demands or desires (except to kill), and no boundaries. The ghosts are just as content to eat their prey as to take them over: individual identity is wholly irrelevant to them. In other words, they’re a bland SF version of the state apparatus, into control for control’s sake. And this is exactly why Desolation is a perfect candidate to ensure the human-humans’ survival: not only is he the resilient and brilliant Ice Cube, but he is also the consummate delinquent champion, equally fearless when it comes to beating down gnarly critters and clobbering a self-righteous woman cop. And let’s be honest: it isn’t every day that the scary black man gets to be the sympathetic, honorable, and triumphantly individual hero. That’s a kind of progress.