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A train pulls into the Martian city of Chryse. On board is only one person, Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a police officer. Called before a tribunal to explain what happened, Ballard relates how she and her unit – which included her captain, Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), an experienced officer, Jericho Butler (Jason Statham) and rookie Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall) – were dispatched to a mining camp to bring in the planet’s most wanted desperado, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). After finding the place eerily quiet, they discovered Williams ensconced in the town jail; but clearly things weren’t right. Dozens of townspeople had been gruesomely murdered, and the remainder seemed to be missing. When Braddock disappeared, Butler was sent to investigate and he discovered a group of humans possessed by ancient Martian spirits intent on destroying the interlopers. From there, it was a fight for survival.

Review by David Edwards:
In a career largely devoted to B-grade horror movies, John Carpenter has gained a cult following, and made some pretty good pictures along the way. This effort however is more schlock than horror, with Carpenter seemingly unable to find the same kind of irreverent tweaking of genre that he displayed in Halloween or Escape from LA. The film certainly draws on elements of Westerns and sci-fi pictures, but once the bullets start flying, it clearly displays its pedigree as a routine zombie picture. In fact, with its threadbare plot, incredibly stilted dialogue and deadly serious performances, Ghosts of Mars is probably one of the most (unintentionally?) hilarious movies I’ve seen for some time. The script introduces a few surprising elements – such as the fact that the planet is ruled by women – but takes them nowhere. Instead, we’re treated to a steady stream of explosions, shootings, decapitations and general mayhem. 

While I know it might be asking a bit much, it would have added a little credibility if some of the more bizarre plot elements were at least explained a little. For example, the script sets up that when a human host is killed, the “ghost” within them is released and can drift on the air currents to find another. But as the body count reaches monumental proportions late in the picture, there seem to be fewer of the “good” humans being affected than in the early stages. Indeed, by the end, the process seems to have stopped altogether. Also, these ethereal “ghosts” apparently bestow superhuman strength on their human hosts, but in their spirit form, they can be stopped by simply closing a door!

As the film opens with Ballard as the only apparent survivor of the mission, it’s pretty easy to guess what happens to the rest of the crew. The story is told in flashback and the device soon becomes clunky, particularly as Carpenter then has to resort to flashbacks within his flashbacks to try to make some sense of the whole thing. The cast, as you might expect, don’t have a lot of actual acting to do. Henstridge tries hard in the lead role, but doesn’t come across as either hard enough or smart enough to be truly convincing. Ice Cube is certainly hard enough as Desolation Williams, but it’s a one-dimensional role. At least he manages to inject some much-needed humour into the proceedings. Just what talented actors like he and Clea DuVall are doing in this muddle is a mystery. For her part, DuVall has even less to do as an inevitable victim (rookies never make it); while Pam Grier hams it up for her brief role as the captain. But spare a thought though for Richard Cetrone who plays Big Daddy Mars, the leader of the zombies. Apart from fighting, all he gets to do is scream malevolently at the sky.

The DVD features what are now reasonably standard behind-the-scenes featurettes. The video diary titled “Red Desert Nights” is quite an interesting add-on, as is the “deconstructed” look at the film’s special effects; although the featurette about the film’s music is less so. It also features the option of having audio commentary from Carpenter and Henstridge, and while this is fun, it doesn’t provide a lot of insight into the film.

This DVD is purely for hard-core Carpenter fans. It’s a long way from his best work, and ends up resembling a violent, feature-length version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller film clip. If you’re not a solid Carpenter buff, the best that can be recommended for this release is to sit back and have a good chuckle. 

Published May 23, 2002

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CAST: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier

DIRECTOR: John Carpenter

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

SPECIAL FEATURES: SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by director John Carpenter and star Natasha Henstridge; “Video Diary: Red Desert Nights” - behind-the-scenes feature; “Scoring Ghosts of Mars” - featurette on the making of the film's music; special effects deconstructions featurette; talent profiles; original movie trailer; bonus movie trailers; picture disc

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: April 12, 2002

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