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john carpenter's ghosts of mars (film)

first published on oilzine.com

"John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" is a futuristic sci-fi action movie set on Mars in the year 2176. But it never really reaches that high a plain, in fact, it barely makes it off the ground. It's not awful, but then again, it's not that great either.

In 2176, the Red Planet is being used as a mine, which is fairly realistic, as usually when we find some virgin land, we desecrate it.

We pick up the action as a group of police officers are on route to a mining town to pick up and escort a criminal named James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) back for trial. He's been accused of decapitating and then robbing six members of the mining community. Nice. Apparently, he's the most dangerous criminal in the Universe, or near as damn it.

When the squad arrives in town, they find it to be deserted except for a few prisoners and Williams. What has happened they wonder.

After a while, it becomes clear that the miners have not deserted the town. Thanks to Martian dust, they've become zombies - decapitating people, piercing their skin, dressing like Marilyn Manson.

Soon the squad's commander, who for some unknown reason we're informed is a lesbian, Helena (Pam Grier) meets her fate. And it's now up to Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) to lead everyone out of the town and to safety - this means she has to trust and rely on Desolation Williams to save the day. What a twist.

The story is told in flashback while Ballard is describing what happened to a tribunal. This does give a nice structure to the film, a series of small short stories, although you're never sure how much time has elapsed, does it all happen within 2 hours or 20?

The plot is an interesting one, it presents a naturalistic view of how life on Mars could be in the early days - the new frontier, the new Wild West. The problem was the performances.

Jason Statham (Jericho) was, as always, terrible. He is in my humble opinion one of the worst actors in the world. Right up there with Charlie Slater on Eastenders. He just eastend-gansta-growls his way through the whole film. "Hey, don't yoo fink I sarnd like Bob 'Oskins?" And the other bit-part actors were just getting through their lines waiting to be killed.

Only Ice Cube, and Henstridge really got their act together and made an attempt to act. Carrying most of the scenes along with them.

I can't blame the baddies for their performances - they didn't have a lot of scope with dialogue like "sjso lsalo llas; gor d ks js df jls d" or whatever the gobbledigook lines were that they had to say.

My main problem, the main thing that stuck in my throat, though, was a by product of this good frontier town plot. It turned into a Western.

Not a bad idea you may think.

But it treated the baddies in the same way that 'Red' Indians were in the early days of films.

In fact, it went to great lengths to make a connection between the savage Aliens and the savage Native Americans. And you have the sheriff and deputies shooting 'em up.

It's a frontier town, the natives getting restless, complete with body paint and piercings, producing intricate but savage art along the way. They carry tomahawk-like weapons. They 'scalp' their victims (well decapitate). They enjoy fire-filled ceremony. Virtually every single cliché you've ever seen about Native American Indians is trotted out. And the message I got from the film? This is our territory now, the natives are savages and need to be civilised or wiped out.

What? Don't tell me it's being ironic. Or is making us think about our values, etc. It isn't.

And another thing. The end was just so inconclusive. Well what end it did have. I just hope that it wasn't lining itself up for a 'bloody' sequel.

I mean it's not a terrible film, it's got a very interesting premise and plot, but it just didn't make the most of it. Or really anything at all. It gives you an idea, and I'll say it again, a good idea, and then leaves you alone to work out the rest of the story by yourself.

Another potentially very interesting, and controversial, idea in the film was also left to rot in people's heads: Ballard is possessed by one of the ghosts - Desolation gives her a dose of her favourite fix and the drug forces the alien to vacate her body, quickly. Drugs save the day, eh? Why wasn't this theme continued. If I was there and had found some kind of antidote, then I think I'd keep on using it, and maybe inform the others of it. Rather that than turn into some possessed bodies destined to be blown to pieces.

Also we don't see any of the goodies-turned-baddies popping up to fool the goodies or at least have the benefit of a "should I, shouldn't I" moral dilemma? Will 'Desolation' shoot his possessed brother, or just leave him? Ooh, the tension that would bring.

These premises could have saved the film, but they weren't expanded, so they didn't.

"John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars" is released in the UK on 30 November 2001 by Columbia TriStar Films (UK).

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