Monday, 22 May 2017

The Adventures of John Carpenter
in the 21st Century:
Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Strangely enough, I’d pretty sure I actually attended the UK premiere of John Carpenter’s last Proper Movie to date way back in… 2001, I’m assuming? If I recall correctly, this event took place in the inauspicious environs of Leicester’s local arts cinema, and, as a student in the city at the time, I’d snagged a season ticket to their annual Fantastic Film Fest (oft referenced here in the past), and so went along.

The reception, it must be said, seemed muted. In fact I don’t recall the atmosphere being much different to that of yr average Tuesday night movie screening. Until I re-watched it this year, I didn’t remember very much at all about the film itself, but, being at the time a rather snobbish fan of cerebral, “big idea” sci-fi and avant garde freakiness, I don’t think I liked it very much.

More fool me then, and more fool the rest of the world, who apparently joined me in consigning ‘Ghost of Mars’ to unremembered oblivion amid the millennial whirl of the early ‘00s, prompting (or at least accelerating) Carpenter’s decision to pack it in and make a tactical withdrawal from the world of mainstream filmmaking.

Returning to the film in 2017, with of fifteen years of water under the bridge, I’m sure I won’t be the only Carpenter fan to take a chance on the recent blu-ray reissue and discover that, whilst it’s certainly no lost classic, ‘Ghost of Mars’ is, in a profound sense, actually pretty good.

I mean, clearly no one is going to try to make the case for ‘Ghosts..’ as one of Carpenter’s best films, and in terms of production value it’s probably one of his least ambitious projects, but in a sense it is the very modesty of the film’s ambitions that serve to make it such an enjoyable prospect today.

Taken on its own terms as a late-VHS-era b-movie in fact, I would contend that ‘Ghost of Mars’ is rock solid, with Carpenter’s distinctive guiding hand discernable in just about every aspect of the production, from the initial concept to the final edit. So - if the idea of John Carpenter directing a rock solid late-VHS-era b-movie pleases you, hesitate no longer over that “add to basket” button, because I’m confident you’ll have a good time here.

I don’t imagine that Carpenter planned ‘Ghosts..’ as his “last hurrah”, but in retrospect the movie’s tendency to fall back on story elements retooled from ‘Assault of Precinct 13’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘The Thing’ certainly gives it a self-referential “last lap of the track” vibe that – whilst much criticised in contemporary reviews - now allows us to indulge in some pleasurable nostalgia for an era in which movies such as these actually got made.

For those of us of a certain age and inclination in fact, ‘Ghosts of Mars’s potential as rainy day comfort viewing is immense. Not only is it probably the closest Carpenter ever came to the kind of modest, Hawksian western he always claimed he really wanted to make, but, speaking as a child of ‘90s video rentals, I also found myself loving ‘Ghosts..’s production design, which resembles a kind of perfect amalgam of every mid-budget/straight to video sci-fi actioner that that decade produced.

It’s full of unfeasibly bulked up post-‘Aliens’ assault rifles, tense walks down clanking corridors, faux-tough guy posturing, infra-red “monster-vision”, cyber-punky made up drugs and set within one of those weird, brightly lit ‘Total Recall’-esque dystopian off-planet colonies that actually looks quite nice and orderly -- and, somehow, all this squares quite nicely with the kind of no nonsense script that could easily have been “Raid on Dry Gulch” or some-such in a former life.

Natasha Henstridge from the ‘Species’ movies turns in a surprisingly strong performance as our resident space-sheriff, proving beyond doubt that she had the necessary acting chops to carry this kind of movie (if only anyone had been paying attention), and, if Ice Cube sadly doesn’t make much of an impression as our Snake Plissken/Napoleon Wilson surrogate (“Desolation Williams”!), there’s no shortage of other interesting contenders to fill the vacuum, from Jason Stratham doing his latter-day cockney action man thing to Robert Carradine drivin’ the big train, Joanna Cassidy from ‘Bladerunner’ fleeing across the Martian desert in a shakily CGI-assisted hot air balloon (shades of Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps..?), and, how can you say no to Pam Grier as the butch dyke space police commander? (With difficulty is the answer you’re looking for.)

Given its status as an unpretentious action-adventure movie furthermore, I think some of the ideas in ‘Ghost of Mars’ aren’t half bad. Considering the kind of comic machismo, barely concealed homo-erotic sub-texts and quaintly adolescent fear of women that had long dominated Carpenter’s films by the time he made this one, the decision to make the Mars colony a matriarchy is certainly an interesting one, and, though the implications of this are never really explored in much depth, there is nonetheless an enjoyable frisson to be found in watching an action movie in which most positions of power and normative authority belong to female characters, with the men conversely portrayed as ‘plucky underdogs’ and suchlike. (I also enjoyed the way that the film’s outlaw characters sneeringly accuse each other of “workin’ for The Woman”.)

The possessed Martian miners who comprise the film’s monster-threat are pretty good too, representing a distinctive and genuinely alarming spin on what could easily have been a rather ho-hum “Indians-via-zombies” type effort. With their bodies now inhabited by the spirits (or “ghosts”, y’see) of barbaric ancient Martian warriors, the human colonists begin filing their teeth, practicing grotesque self-mutilation and forging improvised new weapons for themselves, until they resemble some goth-damaged take on a Warhammer 40,000 army, waving their war banners and hefting improbably massive multi-bladed hand weapons as they bear down upon our heroes’ encampment. Though the mall-goth type make up they favour is.. kind of strange (well, it was 2001 I suppose), this is all pretty awesome, to be honest.

Although the film’s climactic siege situation had generally been read as a rehash of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ (Henstridge & Cube’s similarly ‘Rio Bravo’-inspired sheriff/prisoner relationship certainly suggests as much), these more visible and flamboyant antagonists really make it more of a space-age/’Road Warrior’-filtered take on a good ol’ Rourke’s Drift scenario, and Carpenter clearly had a ton of fun with this notion, even throwing in a blatant homage to ‘Zulu’ at one point as he has his survivors adopt a first rank / second rank firing strategy to take down the Martians pouring through their over-run defenses.

All in all, it is difficult for me to find anything to dislike in a film that panders to my rose-tinted ideal of John Carpenter making a sci-fi action film in 2001 quite as warmly and generously as ‘Ghosts of Mars’. Even the soundtrack, built around woefully dated layers of down-tuned nu-metal guitar, worked quite well for me this time around, with the characteristic rhythmic drive of Carpenter’s compositions adding a welcome sense of urgency and forward momentum that such candy-coated sludge often lacked in the hands of the bands who popularised this questionable sound around the turn of the century.

I don’t want to build expectations for ‘Ghosts of Mars’ up too high in the midst of all this praise however. As stated, the film is certainly no gold-plated classic, but – and this is the key point – it doesn’t intend to be. If only more 21st century productions were content to set out with such modest, genre-constrained ambitions; perhaps more would succeed in fulfilling them half as well as Carpenter does here, and perhaps as a result us long-suffering viewers might have more fun of a weekend movie night. (Just sayin’.)


Erich Kuersten said...

Good for you, welcome to the club. Like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA before it, audiences didn't get the deadpan comedy of WTF moments like that flashback-within-a-flashback, but those of us who did loved it instantly and forever. As you say it's not his best but it is perfect Hawksian comfort viewing -it's perhaps JC's El Dorado

lrobhubbard said...

Once again, Carpenter was ahead of the curve and paid the price...