Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Ghosts of Mars is a heavy metal lullaby from the mind of an oldschool filmmaker. This was John Carpenter’s hardest thrust at the sci-fi genre.

There are some big names in it, notably Jason Statham, Ice Cube, and B-movie queen Pam Grier. John Carpenter has excellent taste in talent, but his taste in sci-fi is questionable. This talent either belongs in an oldschool exploitation movie or a more straightforward, linear, brightly-lit sci-fi flick. Trying to meet in the middle with a Halloween-in-space premise is a recipe for disappointment.

To summarize the setup, the space matriarchs in charge of space cops in the future have a meeting on Mars where they talk about a Mars train that arrived at the station with just a single space cop aboard.

A blond woman enters. She is played by Species from Species (1995). I love her to death. After talking about drugs, the inquisition says Species can “speak freely”, though they don’t promise her immunity. I think it goes without saying that bureaucracy isn’t the way to solve a zombie mystery. She tells a story regardless, thus starting a series of hierarchical flashbacks.

Flashback time. Species is sitting on the train with Jason Statham, Pam Grier, and a couple other space cops who will clearly be killed by zombies. The space cops disembark at a ghost town looking for Ice Cube, who is a notorious outlaw, but first they find some severed limbs and fake-out jump scares. They reach a jail containing Ice Cube and some unimportant characters who will clearly be killed by zombies. Then they meet the zombies.


This chick is into some serious shit.

We get some more flashbacks within the flashback, during which Jason Statham explains how he saw the zombies. Then the heroes go outside to fight said zombies. They’re all a bunch of Mad Max S&M zombies who mutilate themselves and make growling noises, which sounds more interesting than it appears on screen. They have some sort of dominance hierarchy, but because their speech is unintelligible, I have no idea how it works.

What follows is the worst action scene I have ever witnessed. On a darkly-lit Martian street, Carpenter’s Metallica-soundalike instrumental plays while heavily armed humans shoot zombies, sometimes in slow motion. Hypnotic drowsiness sets in immediately.

The finale is a similarly metal action scene with little sense of space. The protagonists want to blow up a nuclear power plant to kill the zombies, and they use the train as a decoy. The trouble is that the train parks about 50 feet away from the power plant, meaning our heroes are 50 feet away from the zombies in direct line of sight with no barriers in between. What could go wrong? Oh, the zombies could see you, corner you, and eat your face.

Maybe Carpenter is trying to make a point here, like in They Live (1988). The point is that cops are dumb. The ones that work on Mars clearly have some kind of strategic impairment. Try parking the train farther down the tracks, rolling it slowly to lure the zombies as far away from the power plant as possible, then reverse direction to pick everybody up when it’s over. Don’t park it right there.

Everyone dies except Species and Ice Cube, the zombies get blown up despite the terrible strategy, Species ends up handcuffed on the train, she wakes up in a hospital, and Ice Cube tosses her a chrome-plated submachine gun amidst an implied zombie invasion.

This kind of action schlock is not unwelcome in video games. The difference is that games involve doing and films involve watching. If something is more fun to do than to watch, it might not be a good fit for a movie. Not to condescend John Carpenter, but this should be obvious to a filmmaker of his caliber.