Tough, grueling and relentless, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars doesn’t shy away from displaying carnage or showing the desperation fueling the bravado in against-all-odds guerilla warfare. It’s a brazen, in-your-face movie done in Carpenter’s trademark clean, no-frills style, and what makes it so disturbing isn’t merely the heightened level of onscreen violence, but the intimate nature of its barbarity.
In 2176, long after Mars has been successfully colonized, a simple reconnaissance mission exposes a terror with global ramifications. A police posse led by Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) takes a train to the remote mining compound of Shining Canyon to fetch one of Mars’ most-wanted fugitives, James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube). What they find is a ghost town, and as the tough-as-nails Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) begins investigating the situation with her crew — the cocky Jericho Butler (Jason Statham) and two loyal rookie cops (Clea Duvall and Liam Waite) — they soon realize that they’re dealing with an evil of other-worldly proportions.
Actually, the source of the scourge is local, a vengeful spirit unleashed by a scientist-Pandora, Professor Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy). The seemingly dead planet which humans have inhabited does have a life force — one which wants to reclaim Mars from the invaders — and the ghostly red cloud which quietly descended on Shining Canyon has transformed its residents into an army of mindless zombies with a ferocious bloodlust and a penchant for ritual mutilation.
Ghosts of Mars, which Carpenter co-wrote with frequent collaborator Larry Sulkis, is very much part of the zeitgeist, not only incorporating prevalent themes of environmental spirituality but the new tradition of tough action heroines as well (even raising the stakes by making colonial Mars a matriarchy). Carpenter also plays with the idea of the antihero, centering the film on the macho rivalry and subsequent alliance of Ballard and Williams.
As easy as it is to distance ourselves from the futuristic science fiction of Ghosts of Mars, there’s something familiar about the film’s savagery, a mob force frenzy that still erupts in localized genocides (as in Yugoslavia and Rwanda) which shouldn’t happen in our allegedly unified global village. Carpenter points out that brutality doesn’t go away. It just crops up with a different face.
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