Review Date: August 24, 2002
Released by: Columbia
Release date: 12/4/2002
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
John Carpenter has publicly stated numerous times of his desire and intent on making a western film like the one's he's grown up with. His idol, The Thing From Another World
director Howard Hawks, had made many forays into the western genre, most notably with Rio Bravo
. Hawks would, in the latter part of his career, remake Rio Bravo
twice as both El Dorado
and Rio Lobo
. So perhaps it is not surprising that John Carpenter homage his idol by going back and remaking his closest film to a western, Assault on Precinct 13
, as Ghosts of Mars
The isolated sands of Mars being the closest substitute to the Wild West any director can do these days; John Carpenter set out to make his western opus. Unfortunately, Ghosts of Mars
was dead on arrival on the box office and was one of John Carpenter's most poorly received films ever. But was Ghosts of Mars
truly a bad film, or was it yet another one of Carpenter's films that was undeservedly ignored at the box office? Will it be remembered down the road like The Thing
, or will it remain dismissed as "The Thing John Carpenter would love to forget"? Strap on your space shoes and let's conquer this planet!
The film begins as Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge
) recalls her story of the ghosts of Mars in front of a judicial team. It was a routine mission, Ballard explains; she and the rest of her crew were to be lead to a Mars outpost by leader Helena Braddock (Pam Grier
) in order to pickup famed criminal James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube
). When they arrived at Shining Canyon, all was not as it should have been. The place was abandoned and there wasn't a living thing in sight. Upon further investigation, it appears as if many of the residents have been brutally slaughtered, with their carcasses hanging from the ceilings of their dwellings. Williams, proving his nickname to be ironically true, sits alone in his jail cell.
He, like every other convict, affirms Melanie that he did not kill those people, and that something is amiss on the Red Planet. Melanie and Co. finally discover what he means when they find a former police officer staring admirably at her contorted hands. She is possessed by the "Ghosts of Mars", who were accidentally released in a mining accident. After lying dormant all these years, they have finally escaped their tomb and have now invaded the bodies of the remaining townspeople. They are attracted to sharp metals and impale themselves freely with available sharp objects. These demons care for nothing but carnage, and they will see to it that the helpless humans are disposed of.
After Captain Braddock gets up to her "head" in Martian mayhem, Melanie is left in charge of the remaining survivors. The prisoners, Desolation and his buddies (Uno, Dos and, you guessed it, Tres), and the Mars police force have all decided to band together in order to catch the train back home, but more importantly, survive. Complications ensue, as they always do, and the group is left to fend for themselves against a fierce tribe of furious demons. Will they survive, or will their blood be shed on the already Red Planet?
Ghosts of Mars
is a return to form of the John Carpenter everyone loves and remembers from the 70's and 80's. Putting his past blunders like Memoirs of an Invisible Man
behind him, he has created a witty and undeniably enjoyable action-horror fest like only he can pull off. He has fabricated some clever and thought out characters in his screenplay, and his homages to previous works make the proceedings all the more enjoyable. At one point in the film Pam Grier yells out "Who Goes There?" in reference to the story his classic version of The Thing
was based on, which is like a understated affirmation to the audience that John Carpenter has indeed returned to his classic days of the past. Perhaps it is all the more ironic that like his classic The Thing
, Ghosts of Mars
too was ignored at the box office. Carpenter can't get any respect these days, and for this film he definitely deserves some.
John Carpenter has proved that even without master cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween
, The Fog
), he is still able to propagate his compositions with immaculate detail. Every shot in the film's scope aspect ratio seems to be filled out from side to side, and viewing it in the included pan & scan catastrophe reaffirms that John Carpenter looks at his mise-en-scene with extreme focus and specificity. Every shot oozes with detail, and the camera positions and compositions Carpenter chooses are for the most part ingenious.
Not only has he done a great job with the cinematography, but Carpenter has also created a welcome synthesizer score that is on par with some of his better works. While not up to the standard of Halloween
, it is very catchy and helps keep up the pace nicely. Right from the opening credits the viewer knows that this is going to be a good Carpenter film, thanks to his memorable title song. The music does wane a bit when Anthrax takes over near the end, but this is still a notable score.
One facet that John Carpenter has little control over in his films is the quality of the actors, and surprisingly, this is another one of his ensemble efforts. With memorable actors like Pam Grier, Joanne Cassidy and Robert Carradine turning in minor supporting roles, even the smallest of parts are handled with a sophisticated elegance. It is like a who's who of supporting talent, with Snatch
's Jason Statham and The Faculty
's Clea DuVall also along for the ride. But what makes this film the entertaining popcorn flick that it is, is the strong and likable lead performances.
Ice Cube is more than just a rapper, and his Desolation Williams character ranks right up there with Darwin Joston's Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13
and Snake Plissken as one of Carpenter's best anti-heros. He is mean, hard edged, but ultimately has an affection for Melanie Ballard, because she is one of the few people to give the guy a chance. The true standout of the show though, is Canadian-born Natasha Henstridge. It is a rarity for women in film to exert the strength and authority that Henstridge brings to her character in Ghosts of Mars
. She dominates every scene she is in, and gives the film a needed strength and character. Both her and Ice Cube bounce off each other with such flirtatious wit, that even the grimmest of situations in the film are given a lively feel.
Despite its Mars locale, this is very much a western film in the same way that Escape From L.A.
is. The barren houses and cityscape strike resemblance to the abandoned ghost towns of western films prior. The uninhabited plains lying beyond Shining Canyon give the film an isolated feel and are definitely the Mars equivalent of the western deserts. Ice Cube's anti-hero is immediately comparable to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood's brash and spiteful caricatures of the past decade. And the image of the two lead characters riding off into the sunset on a train near the films finale is culled right out of nearly every single western film produced. Carpenter clearly loves the western film, and this may just be his definitive western homage.
John Carpenter knows how to make entertainment. His movies are all about being entertained, whether it be through fear or through witty comedy. With Ghosts of Mars
he went out to create a popcorn flick with style, and that is just what he achieved. This is how a B-Movie should be, fun, no more, no less.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 pan and scan, this is a reference quality transfer from Columbia Tri-Star. Mars films are typically hard to capture on DVD because of their intense use of reds and blacks, but thankfully both colors, as well as the rest of the palate, look very sharp and vibrant. The film had a high production budget, and it shows, as there are no blemishes or inconsistencies in the print to be found. The print looks at times so sharp that some of the CGI can be spotted, wherein the theater it could not. This is quite simply the best a Carpenter film has ever looked, period.
Columbia has pulled out all the stops in including a lush Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix for the film. The background speakers are used frequently and admirably, as wind hollers in the background and characters creep behind the frame. The mix really gives a three-dimensional feel to the happenings, and I was left feeling vulnerable from all sides to those pesky Mars ghosts. The sound comes through fully and discretely, and this, like the video transfer, is truly a fine mix.
Also included on the disc is a handful of supplemental material that is sure to please Carpenter fans. First off is the great commentary with the man himself and Natasha Henstridge. Henstridge holds her own with the big guy, and comes across like a female Kurt Russell. Together the two joke and tease, be it about Natasha's ears or John's controlling directional style. This track is lively all the way through, and littered with opinions and facts about the production and their lives. This ranks up there with the best of John Carpenter's audio commentaries.
Next up is a 17-minute, on set video of John Carpenter and the rest of the crew in action. This is a revealing featurette which benefits from its grit and lack of Hollywood gloss. It shows how the film was made right there on the set, rather than from publicists eyes. Carpenter, Henstridge and others also talk briefly to the camera about various scenes and such. A somewhat disappointing 6-minute featurette follows, entitled "Scoring Ghosts of Mars
". I was expecting to at least hear Carpenter talk about his other films and what motivates him to score his movies, but the vast majority of the featurette is captured recording sessions of JC and Anthrax. Not bad, but definitely not what it could have been.
Another 6-minute featurette, this time a special effects deconstruction, is included and provides some interesting background as to how some of the many digitalized shots were captured in the film. Rounding off this disc are film listings for John Carpenter, Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Pam Grier, and Jason Statham. A theatrical trailer was not included which is a shame, and it was most likely omitted because of space restraints. With both the widescreen and pan & scan versions on the same side of the disc, there is not a lot of room for much else.
Ghosts of Mars
is an entertaining popcorn flick directed with a newly rekindled edge by John Carpenter. This is clearly a return to form for the director, and it is nice to see him having fun again. The audio and video transfers are reference quality, and the supplements are entertaining, thanks mainly to the great commentary. If you haven't seen this film yet because of bad word of mouth don't be mistaken, there is plenty to enjoy in this film, and watching it on this high quality DVD makes it all the better.
Movie - B
Image Quality - A
Sound - A
Supplements - B+
- Running time - 1 hour 38 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Subtitles
- French Subtitles
- Commentary by John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge
- "Scoring Ghosts of Mars" Featurette
- "Video Diary: Red Desert Nights" Featurette
- "Special Effects Deconstruction" Featurette