Ghosts of Mars: The Fall of John Carpenter

This essay was originally written in April of 2018

The Last Gasps of an Auteur

2001 is a year that John Carpenter would probably rather forget. Coming off a brutal decade in which the filmmaker consistently bombed and lost favor with critics, Carpenter had seemingly lost his touch: he was unable to keep up with an industry which at once embraced his genius and rejected his style. The cheesy, cheap-looking B-movie which had been his hallmark had no place in a market dominated by The Matrix (1999) wannabes. Nevertheless, it was in this year that Carpenter released Ghosts of Mars, a move which effectively ended his tenure in Hollywood and put the careers of many people involved on hold. The film bombed, only recouping $14 million on a $28 million budget (Box Office Mojo) and was dismissed by critics. Star Ice Cube would go on to a have many lucrative film roles, but remembers Ghosts of Mars as a major disappointment: “I don’t like that movie. I’m a big fan of John Carpenter (and) the only reason I did it was because John Carpenter directed it […] But they really didn’t have the money to pull the special effects off” (Contactmusic.com). Money certainly was an issue. Carpenter had long operated in the precarious medium-sized budget category, a tier which was being downsized with the rise of massive blockbusters and low-budget indie hits. The movie was too expensive to pull a profit and too cheap to look good. Digital technology redefined the art form, a development Carpenter misread and used to disastrous effect. To fully understand the career-ender Ghosts of Mars, we must first examine Carpenter as a through-and-through auteur and try to understand why the B-movie elements which served him so well in the ‘70s and ‘80s let him down in 2001. Ghosts is an exercise in all the signature Carpenter themes and motifs, and yet – it never quite “clicks.” An attempt must be made to salvage the film and view it in isolation as an underrated and misunderstood work which, while by no means a masterpiece, is a solid entry in the Carpenter canon and has been unfairly forgotten due to the unfortunate timing of its release. Ghosts of Mars cemented the irrelevance of one of the most original and singular auteurs in Hollywood history. For that reason, it’s worth looking at on its own terms.

Dressing up the B-movie

To understand the style of John Carpenter is to understand the “B-movie:” the cheap, poorly-made genre of films which has to resort to unorthodox methods of keeping an audience engaged with the finished product. From this genre came many ingenious filmmakers who, removed from the luxuries of budget, operated on pure creativity. The conventions of exploitation and genre cinema play a key role in the Carpenter aesthetic. Only two films of his career ever flirted with genuine legitimacy: Halloween (1978), the genre-defining slasher which is a masterpiece of lighting, camerawork, and musical score; and The Thing (1982), a remake which, though discarded in its day, has come to be revered as a landmark sci-fi horror film and a practical-effects clinic. All of Carpenter’s other successes are good in spite of themselves, meaning they use unconventional elements and creativity to become more than the sum of their meager parts. The acting is hammy and flat, the sets look a little thrown together, quick edits cover up mistakes, and the effects are half-finished. Often, his films are more iconic in moments rather than as whole pieces – They Live (1988) exists in the annals of film history in large part thanks to Roddy Piper’s memorable one-liner: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…[long pause]…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” The line, an ad-lib by Piper, is not a line that would appear on someone’s Oscar reel – it might hit the cutting-room floor in a different movie – but nevertheless is the perfect encapsulation of what makes John Carpenter great: badass, do-it-yourself attitude, originality and fearlessness, and in the end – it’s a bit silly (but entertaining nonetheless). They Live also showcases Carpenter’s rebellious nature. It is an anti-corporate satire for what he saw as a complacent and greedy decade. He said, “I’m disgusted by what we’ve become in America. I truly believe there is brain death in this country […] It’s all about wanting us to buy something” (Muir, 39). Perhaps his intensely independent sentiments are what caused him to never “sell out.” Carpenter, almost to a fault, stayed committed to himself and his unique vision.

Carpenter was heavily influenced by westerns. He once said of his films, “You know I love westerns because I disguise a lot of my films. They’re really westerns underneath” (Cumbow 191). He expressed affection for the works of Sergio Leone, whom he considered to have reached the upper-limit of the western genre. The “myth” of the western and its relation to American culture had shifted with technological advancements. Thus, western archetypes and motifs such as the loner, anti-hero, remote frontier locations, savagery, and the clashing of cultures all play large roles in Carpenter’s work, even though none of them are actual westerns. Ghosts of Mars’ storyline seems almost ripped straight from the western repertoire – a gang of lawmen have to secure a dangerous bandit in a sandy ghost town and get him to a train which will take him to prison. Along the way, the lawmen and bandit must join forces to survive the hostiles who descend upon their party. This plot neatly mirrors 3:10 to Yuma (1957, later remade in 2007). The “bandit,” a convict named Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) is a violent and dangerous man, but a man of principle. At the end of the film, he and the head police officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) find themselves dueling to the death with their ghost-possessed enemies aboard the train, a scene which clearly draws from a western sensibility. This was Carpenter’s first and last fight scene to take place on a train. His admiration for westerns and love for the genre conventions are perhaps more apparent in Ghosts than in any of his works, married with his standard B-movie action-sci/fi ethic.

Prison Planet

1981’s Escape from New York was the debut of Carpenter’s most memorable and iconic protagonist – the eye-patched, gravelly-voiced Snake Plissken. Plissken (portrayed by Carpenter regular Kurt Russell) is sent into the dark alleys of dystopian Manhattan, which has been converted into a no-rules prison for the most dangerous scum in the US. His mission: retrieve the President, downed in a plane crash. Only a man of Plissken’s grit is capable of getting in and out alive, relying on his special forces training. Plissken would return for a sequel – 1996’s Escape from L.A. – this time, tasked with getting a super weapon out of a madman’s hands. The sequel boasted a much larger budget than its predecessor – $50 million vs. $6 million – and failed to find an audience. The move was intended to jumpstart Carpenter’s fledgling ‘90s career. It didn’t.

With the failure of Escape from L.A., prospects weren’t looking good for Carpenter’s new project, Escape From Mars (Marc). Russell and Snake Plissken had outstayed their welcome, so Carpenter set about reworking the project into a new movie, retaining the Martian setting. Carpenter had always wanted to do a Mars movie:

“I’ve wanted to make a Mars movie since the 1980s for three reasons: nostalgia, the color, the symbolism. Nostalgia for all the “attack from space” science-fiction movies I saw as a kid. The color, red–I thought it would be a challenge to make a whole film on the red planet and not annoy the audience or fatigue them with the color. And finally, the symbolism: Mars has always been a supernatural/superior force in human affairs. We’ve projected our own darker emotions upon the planet: love, death, war, lust.”(Boulenger, 264)

Carpenter met the challenge of making a Mars movie with his typical indie ingenuity: the production team literally sprayed an entire white quarry in New Mexico with red dye to achieve the red planet look (don’t worry – the dye was biodegradable). Sets for a Martian mining colony ended up looking very similar to those of Mos Eisley in the Star Wars films. Heavy outdoor lighting and only shooting at night render the exterior scenes to look like they are shot on a cheap soundstage – a disservice to the incredible effort devoted to the set. An even bigger problem comes when scenes move indoors. Every building on Mars looks generic, bland, and ugly. The hospital room and prison cell become indistinguishable.

Prisons are a frequently recurring device in Carpenter films. On top of the Escape series, Carpenter’s credits include Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a staple of the prison exploitation genre, and many other confined settings where characters are trapped and forced to fight their way out (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, The Ward, to name a few). Carpenter shows a fascination for the effect entrapment has on a character’s behavior. In The Thing, we see paranoia and mistrust boil-over. In Assault on Precinct 13, it’s a group of men allowing a women into their ranks, in the Hawksian tradition (Muir, 67). There’s an emotional honesty that comes when characters find themselves with no way out. It may even drive them to join forces with their enemies. Desolation (Cube) is no fan of the police, but comes to admire them: “It’s a fucked-up situation. I never put too much faith in cops, but you (Ballard) did all right.” The line plays off Cube’s star image as a gangster rapper-turned-actor, who once rapped “Fuck tha Police.” Desolation sports a black cutoff t-shirt, a look carried over from Plissken, sans eye-patch. Cube’s performance is solid, but cannot save the underwritten character who, stripped of Kurt Russell’s charisma, becomes a generic anti-hero. His exchange with Ballard, “(Desolation)- If you ever want to come to the other side, you’d make a hell of a crook. (Ballard)- You’d make a hell of a cop. (Both)- Naaaaah,” while cliché, ironically predicts a future in which Cube would make a name for himself portraying cops. Desolation’s prisoner status serves as the social commentary in Ghosts – they’re all in a bad situation, but he’s in the worst situation. But it never gets much deeper than a surface-level racial critique: “I can give a damn about saving this planet. Seems like it was after me since the day I was born. If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die fighting, not running.” Any attempts at political satire or allegory, done so effectively in They Live, miss the mark. The ‘80s were long gone. The culture had changed, and Carpenter failed to find a fresh voice in the new millennium.

The Bad and the Ugly

A major issue with Ghosts is the odd combination of outdated Carpenter schlock and new-millennium technology. The film came about in an era of innovation in digital cinema and computer editing techniques. Due to the newer, easier method of editing – shifting from a deliberate and painstaking process to a mere click of a mouse – techniques such as fades and wipes which once were used sparingly and precisely became the norm. Any viewer, not even a cinephile, will immediately take note of the amount of crossfades in Ghosts. It’s egregious. Just because computers make it so you can throw in a fade every five seconds doesn’t mean you should. No matter whose creative decision drove the editing, the film immediately gives off the vibe of a delusional and out-of-touch filmmaker who isn’t aware of what technology has done to the filmmaking landscape. It seems desperate to be edgy and cool, values which carried a lot of cache in 2001. But the attempt just worsens the experience. The unnecessarily convoluted layers of flashbacks within flashbacks all set inside a retrospective frame story don’t help matters. Oddly enough, it takes the action scenes to finally bring us back to good ole’ fashioned cutting.        

On top of ridiculous editing choices, the green-screen effects in the film are especially jarring. The movie is at its best when practical effects take center stage. They’re outdated and Mad Max-esque, but at least they build a world. The ghosts cause the miners of the Martian colony to tattoo themselves, pierce their skin, and deck themselves out as an army of tribal demon warriors. Big Daddy Mars, their leader, wouldn’t look out of place dancing backup for Rob Zombie. He’s cool, and underused. However, the CGI in the film at moments reaches cartoon-levels of unbelievability. The climactic fight features dozens of flying spears and saw blades. Not one is convincing. The poor effects Ice Cube was referring too aren’t a mere charming flaw or oversight; they truly do sink the movie. Any reasonable filmmaker would have seen the benefit to working around the film’s budget and keeping the effects as in-camera as possible. Many of the decisions regarding CGI come off as rushed and half-assed. John Carpenter’s first big foray into computer technology was a disaster, as should be expected from a man used to doing things the old-fashioned way. His sensibility was permanently stuck in the past, and the existence of modern technology only served as a cheap temptation to lure the filmmaker into mediocrity. Carpenter never sold out, but he did choose to take the easy way out with Ghosts. The end result is jarring and embarrassing for the stars on screen to act alongside.

Interesting to note is the “ghostcam” sequences, where we see a POV of the ghosts’ souls (or something) attempting to find a new corporeal host. These shots are done with some sort of digital, handheld camera and a heavy MTV filter. It looks cheap, worse than a modern-day “found footage” movie. Carpenter had used the POV so well and memorably in the opening of Halloween. The mask view of Michael Myers puts the viewer in the shoes of a knife-wielding killer and implicates the audience in the murder. Carpenter apparently thought the same thing would ring true for a ghostly spirit in a Mars movie. It’s just silly.

Contrast this negative aspect of the film with a more interesting one; the film physically looks old. Something about the filmstock used, the cameras, lenses, lighting – many stills are indistinguishable in quality to his older works, such as the moody shadows of Escape from New York. Ironically, in a world where every music video had the Matrix-green filter pasted over the top and rapid Requiem for a Dream editing, Ghosts held on to a gritty, independent look. Carpenter’s insistence on widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio helps his entire filmography maintain a cinematic, grandiose look and feel, even though the settings and tones vary wildly. Perhaps this also can tell us why the movie failed. Filmgoers who were seeing such bright and flashy films as Armageddon, The Rock, and The Fast and the Furious weren’t interested in a visual style which wasn’t aiming to bombard their senses at every turn. The “action” sensibility defined by Michael Bay and Tony Scott in the early 2000s is completely absent in Ghosts. The camera stays wide unless a close up is necessary. The action is very easy to follow and camera movements are smooth. This is in line with Carpenter’s early promotion of the steadicam system, which allowed for more dynamic camera movement without sacrificing image coherence (Cumbow 51). He never aims to bombard the senses, even in the most chaotic of action sequences. Carpenter wants to ensure that at all times the audience knows what is going on. Such a relatively placid visual style was probably “too boring” for audiences at the time. We should be glad, looking back, that an action movie from this time period doesn’t give in to rapid music-video editing and closeup shaky cam. Ghosts looks antiquated because old movies don’t artificially create excitement by having the cameraman imitate a seizure. The smooth and steady visuals serve the action well. The fights are adequately choreographed and more than serviceable for a silly action movie. Luckily, we can actually see them.

Loosen Up Folks, it’s a Dumb Action Movie

The great tragedy of the failure of Ghosts of Mars is the fact that critics seemed to have forgotten who John Carpenter was. The movie is almost exactly what you’d expect from an elderly B-movie master who had Ice Cube running around blasting literal ghosts. Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, seemed to “get” it:

“…[Ghosts of Mars] does have one original touch. After Melanie is possessed by a ghost, Desolation administers a fix from her stash, and the drug, whatever it is, inspires the alien to get out of her body fast. It is encouraging to learn that the ancient races of our solar system learned to just say no to drugs.”

Ebert gets it. The movie fails on many technical levels. But a viewer going in expecting a seamless action masterpiece, alla Die Hard, didn’t understand the filmmaker they were dealing with. The movie is enjoyable because you can laugh at the bad stuff and get genuine enjoyment out of the competent action, unique costumes, and over-the-top dialogue. Natasha Henstridge is the ultimate serviceable protagonist. None of the performances make the film cringeworthy or unwatchable, and Jason Statham comes through with a laugh or two. Even Pam Grier, who also saw her career go into a tailspin after Ghosts, injects some badass movie-cop credibility to the tough team of leather-clad heroes. The artistic merits of John Carpenter films have always come with a grain of salt. You can’t excuse lazy filmmaking, but even an uninspired piece of the auteur’s work has his signature edge and vision. A trip to John Carpenter-land always promises to deliver on some sort of entertainment, and Ghosts is no exception. Whether you choose to laugh at the inexplicable (and never brought up again) title card indicating that Martian future society is Matriarchal (is that some sort of social commentary, Carpenter?) or you just enjoy a musical score featuring heavy metal act Anthrax, there’s entertainment to be had here: intentional or otherwise. Most all of his work has this aspect. And no actor in the film is nearly as unforgivably bad as Kim Cattrall’s turn in the beloved Big Trouble in Little China. If nothing else, it’s fascinating to see a great filmmaking mind literally dropped into 2001 trying to “keep up with the kids.”

Bibliography

Boulenger, Gilles. John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness. Silman-James Press, 2003.

Cumbow, Robert C. Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter. Scarecrow, 1990.

Ebert, Roger. “Ghosts of Mars Movie Review & Film Summary (2001) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, 24 Aug. 2001, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/ghosts-of-mars-2001.

“John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001).” Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=ghostsofmars.htm.

Marc, Christopher. “’Ghosts of Mars’ A Repurposed ‘Escape From’ Sequel With ‘Quatermass and The Pit’ Story Beats?” Omega Underground, 7 Jan. 2017, omegaunderground.com/2017/01/06/ghosts-mars-former-escape-l-sequel-mixed-story-beats-quatermass-pit/.

“Movies, TV and Celebrities.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.

Muir, John Kenneth. The Films of John Carpenter. McFarland, 2000.“Ice Cube Regrets Turning Down Menace Taking Ghosts Of Mars.” Contactmusic.com, Contactmusic.com Ltd, 20 Sept. 2008, www.contactmusic.com/ice-cube/news/ice-cube-regrets-turning-down-menace-taking-ghosts-of-mars_1081122.

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