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'Ghosts of Mars'

John Carpenter is responsible for the worst movie of the summer

Friday, August 24, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Directors and studios take a risk when they insist on attaching a name to a movie. As in "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars."

    Movie Review


Rating: R for strong violence/gore, language and some drug content.

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube

Director: John Carpenter

Critic's call:


You see, when someone asks me what the worst movie of the summer is, I will respond, "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars." And there will be no doubt about who is responsible for it. John Carpenter.

Although if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire movie crew to turn out something as ludicrous, violent, unentertaining and unintelligible -- we've just escaped from a blood-thirsty mob, let's turn around and go back -- as this. It's set on Mars in the year 2176, when society is matriarchal and Mars is inhabited by 640,000 people who live and work on the Red Planet. Many of them toil in the mines, extracting God knows what.

As the movie opens, a Mars Police Force officer named Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is being questioned by a tribunal of sorts. She and a crew of officers had been assigned to go to an outpost called Shining Canyon and pick up a convicted murderer, James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube). But when the train returned from its mission, only Ballard was aboard. She proceeds to recount the harrowing tale of what happened.

When they arrived at Shining Canyon, they found evidence of mass murder -- and miners who had gone mad. They claw at their skin and insert sharp metal objects under the surface, file down their teeth and dress like a cross between heavy metal fans, Halloween costume contestants and feral cavemen. Or maybe zombies, although they're expressive for zombies. Oh, and they're possessed by a newly unleashed evil Martian force which drives them to kill humans, lop off their heads and spike them onto pikes.

Or, as one of the officers reports upon seeing this: "Lieutenant, we've got a situation here." What a master of understatement that is.

"Ghosts of Mars" turns into a bloody showdown between the possessed and the unpossessed, set to the beat of thumping music. It doesn't work on so many levels: Ice Cube, who comes out with two machine guns blazing at one point, has screen presence but is so contemporary that he seems transported from 2001; by having the Henstridge character share the story, we are tipped to her survival; someone thinks it's funny to have a character (who's high) lop off his hand and then show off the bloody remnant before falling to the floor.

The relationship between Ballard and Desolation consists of one-liners alternating with what passes for insightful dialogue. When Cube's prisoner points out that he's saved the cop's life, again, she quips, "Yeah, run a tab."

Before production on the movie began in a gypsum mine outside Albuquerque (part of sacred land settled by the Zia Indians 800 years ago), a tribal elder and medicine man gave a prayer blessing. It was for the success of the project, safety of cast and crew and mutual respect between the production company and Zia people.

Did he read the script beforehand? Or did he secretly endorse the idea that the Martians wanted to kill the interlopers? Just wondering.

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