Judge Dennis Prince now believes that, in space, everyone can hear you yawn.
Terror is the same on any planet.
If, indeed, terror is a universal concept, as this 2001 intergalactic jaunt suggests, then thank the Heavens that the indisputable cure for insomnia (surely a universal affliction) has been found at last in the farthest reaches of space…and on this shiny little disc.
Facts of the Case
In the not too distant future of 2176, the red planet of Mars is host to small communities of humans who have migrated to mine the planet's resources. Naturally, where there are humans, there is unrest and unlawfulness and, as luck has it, plucky intergalactic police officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge, Species) has been sent to a far off outpost on Mars to collect and transport criminal James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube, Three Kings). As dangerous as Desolation can be, Ballard and her attend squad of space cops are hardly prepared for the real trouble that awaits them. The outpost is deserted save for the jailed Desolation. Further investigation reveals the mining community has been brutally dispatched by a ferocious band of feral killers…or are these the miners themselves, somehow possessed by the spirits of ancient and angry Martians unwittingly unleashed by the mining operations? Now Ballard must find a way to return her captive to face due justice provided she and her team can survive the onslaught of the ghosts of Mars.
If the preceding synopsis sounds rather trite and unexciting, then you're fully prepared to endure the film itself. Genre legend John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978) is certainly not one to be dismissed as amateur yet this uninspired sci-fi snoozer certainly makes us wonder where the magic has gone? Carpenter proved soundly and solidly that a multi-million dollar budget does not ensure top-quality entertainment. With minimal funding but effective storytelling and directing, this filmmaker kept moviegoers hanging on the edge of their seats as an unstoppable shape hunted unwary babysitters, departed sailors emerged from a fogbank to extract a revenge, and a thing from another world infiltrated the very bodies of a band of arctic researchers. Carpenter showed unfailing deftness in squeezing every last drop of potential from the most mundane settings and skillfully trumping up a shoddy prop or effects gag into a you'll-never-forget-this sequence.
Apparently, the journey to Mars has left Carpenter with jet lag. Where the "celebrated director of his time" was once able to inspire shining performances and results out of the most raw materials, now he seems a bit tired and uninspired, passing along the funk to his cast and crew (and, ultimately, the audience). While we're all familiar with the theme that future life will generally suck and people won't smile anymore even though they get to travel through space and time as easily as the take a seat on the crapper, here the dullness the characters are supposed to feel makes the whole outing a tedious endeavor. The sullen and somber tone doesn't heighten tension nor evoke a response of despair and uneasiness; it simply makes us as uninterested as the few people on screen. Interestingly enough, if you saw this picture in an un-crowded movie theater with ten strangers in attendance, that would be a larger assembly of folks than seem to appear in this entire movie. Credit Carpenter for realizing he couldn't have a large cast to work with and, therefore, elect to tell a story in an empty town setting. Unfortunately, the threat—that is, the possessed miners—aren't a big group themselves and seem to pose little threat. They seem especially easy to defeat as they patiently await their choreographed fight cues before they fully engage the on-screen protagonists. As for effects and gore, there's a bit of that here but nothing noteworthy. Even though you might get excited that the KNB Effects Group brought along the gooey delights, these all seem to have come from their clearance rack, none of the elements being especially creative or memorable.
For better or worse, here's Ghosts of Mars on Blu-ray. This, too, seems a pointless endeavor given the transfer here, brought to you by way of the usually impressive AVC codec, looks as indifferent as the space yarn it dispenses. The image is generally soft and missing any sort of contrast that would give us that well-loved "pop" of a high-definition presentation. Overall, it looks like an indifferent DVD rendering, one that's not given any boost by a competent upscaling player. The audio is much better in regards to punch, mostly thanks to the pounding score written by John Carpenter ('natch) and performed by heavy metal mutants, Anthrax. The LFE channel will get the best workout while the surrounds are generally well utilized by the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix. Dialog is clear and intelligible, which isn't necessarily a good thing since these have to be the dullest characters with the dumbest dialog this side of the Sun. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary from John Carpenter and star Henstridge (their rather informative insight being far more interesting than the drama at hand). A video diary provides about eighteen minutes of un-narrated behind-the-scenes footage that is rather unspectacular. A special effects featurette runs about seven minutes, longer than the actual effects sequences on screen. A second featurette, "Scoring Ghosts of Mars" offers six minutes in the recording studio with the Anthrax gang.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To give credit where credit is due, it's remarkable that Carpenter was able to even eke out these results given a budget arguably consisting of a pocketful of expired bus tokens, pocket lint, and shed pubic hairs. He economizes on lighting expenses by using a number of red and orange filters to simulate what we would expect of the "red planet." He also hides the fact that he hasn't much of a cast of creatures nor the money to make them up properly by utilizing dark and murky settings. In fact, the entire picture was shot entirely during nighttime hours, making it easy to achieve dark and barely discernible location shots. And, by writing the music himself (as he usually does), he saves having to pay a composer. Having Anthrax along to perform the stuff was likely an appeal to younger genre-goers and likely only cost him a few twelve-packs of Coors Light.
Ghosts of Mars is a frightening apparition, to be sure. It's frightening only in its lifelessness and sense of dread that the next 98 minutes of your life will be dead to you forever. As for the Blu-ray treatment, a lackluster HD presentation plus the fact that all extras have been ported over from the previous DVD release indicates this is a disc to skip completely, not even worthy of a rental.
Guilt is the same on any planet.
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