Sony // 2001 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 4th, 2001
Terror is the same on any planet!
Every summer a swarm of movies descend upon theaters like moths to a flame. Usually they consist of big budget action flicks, gross out comedies and derivative remakes/sequels. Among these films there's always a few gems and stinkers that get lost in the crowd. Such was the fate of horror director John Carpenter's action thriller Ghosts Of Mars. Starring Ice Cube (Anaconda), Natasha Henstridge (Species), Jason Statham (Snatch), Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) and Clea Duvall (The Faculty), John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars scares up a special edition on DVD care of Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment.
In the year 2025 humans have colonized the red planet known as Mars. Unfortunately, the people of earth weren't the first to get there...
When police lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Henstridge) and her squad are sent on a routine mission to pick up a prisoner, everyone thinks it's an in and out deal: retrieve mass murderer "Desolation" Williams (Cube) and get back to headquarters. Once the squad arrives to the remote region of Shining Canyon they realize that something's not quite right in town. After a little snooping around they find that the citizens of Shining Canyon have been overrun by the ghosts...(drum roll)...of MARS! Awakened from their slumber underneath the rocks, the ghosts have an appetite for blood! After taking over the human hosts, the "Ghosts" pierce their skin, speak in gibberish and plan to take vengeance on anyone who tries to lay claim to their planet. Trapped in Shining Canyon with Williams and some locals, the police squad must find a way to stop the army of Martians and get out alive before they become the ghost's next host!
First there was Brian De Palma's inexcusable Mission To Mars. Then came the Val Kilmar action dud Red Planet. After a small hiatus comes the summer mega dud John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars. Hollywood take heed: audiences don't want to see anymore movies about Mars!
That warning aside, Ghosts Of Mars is easily the best of the three recent films based on a visit to the red planet (and, ironically, did the least amount of business at the box office). I saw Ghosts Of Mars in theaters during the summer of 2001 and experienced mild indifference. After some time to ponder and a second viewing at home, I've come to the conclusion that Ghosts Of Mars is actually an entertaining action movie that movies along at a brisk pace. Maybe I was exhausted and not in the mood when I saw this on the big screen, or maybe Ghosts Of Mars just plays better in comfort of your own home. Either way, Ghosts Of Mars is a lot of fun.
Director John Carpenter, best known for his horror films like Halloween, The Thing remake, and In The Mouth Of Madness, shows that he's an able director when it comes to explosive action movies. In fact, Carpenter is one of the few horror directors to branch out from fright films into sci-fi (They Live), comedy/action (Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, Big Trouble In Little China) and straightforward drama (Starman). If Carpenter's movies are sometimes uneven, at least we can give him credit for usually attempting something new and unique each outing.
Which brings me back to John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars. This is not a fantastically original film; Ghosts Of Mars often feels like a combination of The Hidden, Lord Of The Flies and Carpenter's own Escape From L.A. all wrapped up in one neat little package. However, what it lacks in originality it makes up for in flair and excitement. The cast of Ghosts Of Mars seems game for some tense stunt work and thrilling action scenes. Lead actress Natasha Henstridge as Lt. Ballard is a strong center character and lead gal. Henstridge comes off as more than a pretty face with some tough talking dialogue care of Carpenter and co-writer Larry Sulkis' script. Ice Cube as her reluctant cohort plays it cool and collected while the rest of the cast (including a gruff Pam Grier) all play the material as straight as Howard Stern at a wet T-shirt contest. Joanna Cassidy (Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead) is given a juicy role that injects some much needed humor into the action. And what kind of reviewer would I be if I didn't mention "Big Daddy Mars," the creepy, hulking lead ghost who looks like Marilyn Manson on six thousand grams of steroids?
The town of Shining Canyon (filmed at the Gypsum Mines in New Mexico) is turned into a battleground where extended action sequences take place seemingly every fifteen minutes. Kung-fu, tossed bombs, and battering rams are only part of the fun in the kitschy little flick. There's a sense that Carpenter knew how silly this all was (most of the "ghosts" look as if they were pulled off the corner of Hollywood and Vine), and he pulls out all the stops in each consecutive scene. If there's a true downfall to Ghosts Of Mars it's that none of the supporting characters ever breakout of their stereotypical action roles. If you've seen movies like Starship Troopers or Event Horizon, you've seen these same guys (and gals) before. Those complaints aside, John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars is mindless entertainment that does no harm -- it's just good, dirty fun.
John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen (as well as an optional pan and scan full frame version. But who wants that?). Aside of a few scenes that seemed a tad under lit, this transfer looks very detailed and clear. I noticed only the slightest hint of edge enhancement during a few scenes, and the bulk of the colors and black levels look sharp and well rendered. Columbia has done a very nice job on this print and transfer.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English. The bass comes in deep and thick during the film (thanks to a heavy metal rock score composed by Carpenter and played by musicians from the bands Anthrax and Buckethead). The directional effects are ample with the surround feature utilized in all the speakers throughout the film. Dialogue, music and effects are clear of any distortion or hiss, and the bulk of the soundtrack has a very aggressive quality to it. Also included on this disc are English and French subtitles.
I'm not too sure that Ghosts Of Mars warrants being labeled as a "special edition," but to its credit there are a few nice supplements on this disc (even if they are a bit thin). To start off with there is a commentary track by director John Carpenter and actress Natasha Henstridge. Carpenter's commentaries are usually fun and entertaining, and Ghosts Of Mars is no exception. Henstridge and Carpenter seem to really enjoy talking together and had a ball making this film. Many behind-the-scenes stories are shared, as well as production information and humorous anecdotes. This ends up being a very entertaining and enlightening commentary track.
Next up is "Video Diary: Red Desert Nights" which follows the cast and crew on the production of the film. This is really a very fluffy piece that includes no narrative or explanation of the footage being shot. It's a nice extra if you want to have a quick glimpse at some behind-the-scenes footage -- otherwise, it's not a very exciting piece. "Special Effects Deconstruction" runs the same gambit as it takes a look at the production of some of the effects in the film. Backed by thumping music, this extra includes rough footage, storyboards, and some computer graphics used in the film. The featurette "Scoring Ghosts Of Mars" is yet another light short that gives viewers a glimpse of Carpenter and his musicians scoring the film.
Finally there is a quick list of filmographies of the cast and the director. Strangely, there isn't one theatrical trailer or TV spot to be found on this disc.
Apparently the second time is the charm for John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is one movie that's better suited for the small screen. It's got zombified ghosts, well produced action scenes, and Ice Cube. John Carpenter may not have broken any new ground with this film, but it's got enough zing in it to thrill even the most discerning action fan. Columbia has done a nice job on this disc, though the mediocre sampling of extra features forces me to wonder why this was labeled as a "special edition" disc.
If you'd have asked me four months ago I'd have said "guilty." Since then I've changed my verdict to innocent! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director John Carpenter and Actress Natasha Henstridge
* Video Diary: "Red Desert Nights"
* Special Effects (SFX) Deconstructions
* "Scoring Ghosts Of Mars" Featurette
* The "Carpenticized" Side of the Web