In 2001, I just beginning to discover the wonderful world of John Carpenter beyond Halloween and his underseen Elvis biopic with Kurt Russell. Carpenter would go on to become one of my favorite directors. Had I known he would make just two more feature-length movies, I’d have made a greater effort to watch Ghosts of Mars in cinemas. It’s the last of his movies that feels like a true Carpenter production — even if it doesn’t sit at the top table.
If you take a gander at IMDb or Letterboxd, you’ll see Ghosts of Mars is the lowest-rated of Carpenter’s 21 major directorial credits. Hell, it’s the lowest-ranked of anything he’s directed. Sure, a large part of that is due to the fact that Carpenter has directed a Mack Truckload of certified classics. Even so, Ghosts of Mars isn’t close to being one of them. You could definitely argue that technically it’s poorer than something like Vampires, The Ward, or even his super low-budget debut Dark Star. But on a John Carpenter vibe scale? It’s unfairly kicked about.
Ghosts of Mars is set in the year 2176. Humanity has — despite the existence of Elon Musk — managed to actually get its ass to Mars and inhabit it. There’s a police force, rural towns, and even criminals!
The story involves all three of those things. A Martian police unit (featuring Jason Statham, Pam Grier, and Natasha Henstridge) is sent to retrieve a dangerous criminal Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) from a remote Martian village. It may be remote, but it shouldn’t be as empty as the unit finds it.
By some dumb fortune, a mining team has unearthed an ancient device left by Mars’ original inhabitants. By activating it, a swarm of warrior ghosts is unleashed who subsequently possess the townsfolk. Hard lesson learned: conservation is important, even on Mars.
Our unlikely group bands together with the remaining townsfolk to survive a Martian onslaught.
Big Trouble in Little Mars Town
Credit: Screen Gems
You can practically smell the Carpenter beats coming off that. The crook and cop union of Assault on Precinct 13, the ancient unearthed threat of The Thing, the B-Movie charms of They Live and Big Trouble in Little China, the spiritual body horror of Prince of Darkness, and cursed ghosts of The Fog to name but a few.
Ghosts of Mars is a melting pot of John Carpenter’s greatest hits. That alone would be enough to endear it to me as a Carpenter fan. But the execution — ropey as it can be — actually feels like a throwback. A movie out of time in much the same way Escape From L.A. appeared to be.
Carpenter had stated that Ghosts of Mars was meant to be a silly throwback, not only to some of his own filmography but other action hits such as Commando and Predator. The message was largely lost, and it caused the director to walk away from Hollywood through disillusionment.
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That is an unfortunate outcome, but it makes Carpenter’s refusal to make a film like he used to all the more understandable.
But watch Ghosts of Mars with that goofy intent in your mind and I’m sure you’ll get something out of it. At the very least, it has the best soundtrack for a John Carpenter film that he didn’t solely create himself. Music Producer Bruce Robb brought in the likes of Anthrax, Steve Vai, Buckethead, and Robin Finck from Guns & Roses, and former The Cars guitarist Elliot Easton to create what is essentially the blueprint for Mick Gordon’s score for the 2016 DOOM game. Now that’s a legacy.aa