Tuesday, July 9, 2013

John Carpenter: Ghosts of Mars

Well, we’re finally to the one film that everyone last year (when I announced I was doing a Carpenter retrospective) seemed to peg as the one review they were the most interested in. Yup, we’re finally to Ghosts of Mars. I've been hinting at it throughout this retrospective, but I suppose I should just get the superlatives out of the way: I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s a brilliant genre film, it’s a brilliant midnight movie, it’s a brilliant satire, and it’s one of the (intentionally) funniest movies Carpenter has ever made.

The latter part of Carpenter’s career (post-They Live) has been an inconsistent one, but some films like Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness have found a following and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. From what I can gather,  Ghosts of Mars is still the shining example for detractors of a once great filmmaker that just simply phoned it in, but I think if more people  give it a (second) shot with the understanding that the film isn’t meant to be taken seriously (although, that’s not to say that it isn't seriously made), and that the man who understood the way to deliver scares in his beloved classics like Halloween and The Thing is still the same director on Ghosts of Mars (read: he’s not phoning it in; everything he does here is deliberate). I’m not just throwing around the word “misunderstood” all willy-nilly in an attempt to cherry pick the auteur’s most maligned film and call it a masterpiece solely because it was heavily criticized upon its initial run. No, I really do think that Ghosts of Mars, warts and all (a phrase I've thought of quite a few times during this retrospective), is really damn great.

Before we jump right to the plot, I wanted to point everyone towards Erich Kuersten’s brilliant essay on the film. Erich’s essay is the definitive essay on Ghosts of Mars; I just love the way he deconstructs the film. I love that he calls the film “Brechtian” and likens the film to something along the lines of “a revisionist Jack Hill-ish, Walter Hillish, Howard Hawkish homage/satire Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo." He also points out that that Ghosts of Mars was just ahead of its time, referring to the sentence above, Erich states that, “[t]he trouble is, no one is looking for a movie like that,” and this is true, no one is looking for a movie like that, but I think the style of the action (video game-like with its emphasis on exploring its world and walking around creepy abandoned buildings waiting to shoot things that pop out at you) and the style of humor are much more palatable today than they were some 10 years ago. Carpenter was a victim of timing again as he knew what audiences would find entertaining before they were aware of it, just like his other misunderstood genre masterpiece Big Trouble in Little China.

Okay, the plot: Mars is now a mostly livable environment for humans (they can walk on Mars without pressure suits), and as we begin the film, we’re introduced to Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) who is taken before a council of her superiors (all women, mind you, since Carpenter loves the idea of strong female characters...so why not take it to the extreme and have the government be matriarchal) so that she can recount her tale of what happened to her team at a small mining outpost on what was supposed to be a routine prisoner transfer. Of course, in a movie such as this, nothing is “routine,” and so we come to find that the mining community where out prisoner in question, James “Desolation” William (Ice Cube), is being detained...well, they messed up big time and let loose an evil spirit that had been buried deep in the mines.

As Ballard recalls the events that happened at the mining town, we flashback to her story (this is really the bulk of the film) and see what happened to the rest of her team: there’s Nathan Jericho (Jason Statham, in an early role), Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall), and Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier). Their mission is to simply transport Williams, but as they arrive at the mining town, things have obviously gone pear-shaped, and soon they find themselves in a fight for their collective lives. Here Carpenter takes us back to his first major release, Assault on Precinct 13, with the theme of the prisoner and the cop having to team up (which Carpenter openly admits taking from Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo).

Much like he did with In the Mouth of Madness, Carpenter is interested in playing around with the narrative structure. Ghosts is so wacky in its narrative that it almost plays like a live-action version of “The Simpsons” with is primary story being told in flashback with flashbacks within that flashback and so on. It’s Carpenter taking the tongue-in-cheek, self-aware humor of his previous film, Vampires, to the extreme. The most brilliant example of this is when Ballard tells the council of her witnessing a miner slit his own throat. So we see this with her voice narrating the action. Okay, seems normal so far. Then Jericho (in the flashback, mind you) happens by the truck and asks Ballard what’s going on. She then relays the story to him with a voiceover narration within a voiceover narration — a flashback within a flashback — it’s one of the funniest, most deadpan things Carpenter has ever inserted into one of his films, and I think it’s way more clever and funny than the more popular and obvious (albeit good) self-reflexive ribbing found in In the Mouth of Madness.

As much as I love it, I cannot deny that the narrative — specifically the narrative style — is one of the primary reasons that so many at that time seemed put off by its fast and loose rules and (intentionally) silly premise. It’s pretty easy to see (even for this fan) why so many that simply look at the surface of the film are so appalled that Carpenter could “soil” his reputation with something like this. The heavy metal music (Carpenter with the help of heavy metal guitar gurus Steve Vai, of Anthrax, and the eccentric Buckethead) is certainly jarring. It’s bizarre and out of place and, I think, totally perfect for the action scenes it accompanies. Again, Ghosts of Mars has so much of a video game feel that the music felt right at home during some of the big action scenes, which come complete with Martians catapulting through the air when a grenade goes off a la Commando (just one of the film’s many charms). Sure, it’s not even in the top 10 of Carpenter scores, but it’s appropriate for what he’s up to here.

In addition to the music being a problem for Carpenter fans, the action scenes also come off as (seemingly) lazy and clunky (a problem he had in Escape from LA but seemed to have fixed in Vampires), but I think that just adds to Midnight Movie kind of charm the film has, and I certainly think it was a deliberate choice by Carpenter (more on that later). The dialogue is also something that is an acquired taste, but it never fails to make me smile. It’s that great tough guy (or gal, in this film’s case) dialogue found in hard boiled noirs and B-westerns Good pulpy western dialogue like: “I want you all jack-ready and double tough” (of course it sounds more bad ass and cool than cheesy coming out of Pam Grier’s mouth) and “There’s a thin line between a crook and a cop these days,” which naturally made me think of Assault on Precinct 13

Finally, the performances — specifically Ice Cube — were universally panned at the time for their stiltedness and are an obstacle for some viewers to get over. True, Cube’s performance leaves something to be desired (Darwin Joston, he’s not), but Desolation Williams as a character is one of Carpenter’s weaker creations because Ghosts of Mars doesn't require him to be anything more than what he is; the film isn't interested in Williams — it’s interested in showcasing a strong female protagonist (something Carpenter loved to instill in his films).

Henstridge didn't fair much better in terms of critical praise. The role of Melanie Ballard was initially supposed to go to Famke Janssen. After she couldn't make it work, Carpenter thought he had Courtney Love (who had agreed to do it), but had to drop out, too. Carpenter ended up calling Henstridge as a last-minute fill in, which is one of the reasons for her seemingly detached performance. Because she came to the role very late, she basically learned all of her lines on-the-spot after immediately leaving the set of the previous film she had just wrapped; in the DVD commentary track she talks about how tired she was throughout the whole shoot, and that it likely affected her performance, particularly in the scenes where she needed to be physical.

Despite the last-minute casting issues, Henstridge certainly looks the part: she’s one of the most beautiful women in film but isn't relegated to being nearly a sex bomb here; she’s beautiful, yes (in addition to the Mars of the future being a matriarchal society, it’s also one where out hero is hit on by lesbian Pam Grier, a nice flip on the genre convention of the male authority figure being all creepy and sleazy whilst on the job) but she also kicks a lot of ass, is in constant control of the situation, and is dismissive of Jericho’s sad attempts at flirtation. But none of that really clicked with audiences when the film was released.

So, those are some elements of the film where I can at least see why so many had a problem with Ghosts of Mars. I get it. The music, the performances, the narrative. But, I want to talk about what I love about the film and what I think Carpenter is really up to here...

I come back to the beginning of this essay where it seems that with both Vampires and Ghosts of Mars, many fans saw Carpenter as a cynical filmmaker filled with ennui and basically saying “fuck it.”  As we've discussed throughout this retrospective, Carpenter was always fond of Hawks’ “invisible” camera. Here is an auteur unlike most auteurs that isn't interested in drawing attention to his aesthetics. Look back at his earlier films like Assault on Precinct 13 or The Fog or The Thing (the three films of his I see the most in Ghosts) and you’ll see that “invisible” style at work — something that’s so seemingly simplistic that it’s bordering on having not even been considered; however, it is a very deliberate choice by Carpenter (as it was with Hawks). Because it was so deliberate, it seems then that what Carpenter is doing here (as he did in Vampires with those much-maligned dissolves) is very self-aware — the man’s entire oeuvre is a testament to his understanding of how to employ Hawks’ “invisible” camera. He deliberately disposes of that theory in Ghosts of Mars, and it’s probably why the French “get” him in the same way they “got” the seemingly simplistic Hawks (calling him an icon of the New Wave). 

Carpenter, if asked today, would probably take his usual cynical, dismissive approach when pressed to talk about his own work and would likely call Ghosts of Mars a “junk movie” that he made because he just wanted to make a movie. Carpenter did this throughout his early career, claiming he only made movies because he needed a job (Christine). His laid back attitude towards his art makes it easy for critics to dismiss his films as the shallow genre films they appear to be. But as we have seen, Carpenter is almost always up to more than what the surface suggests, and since we've labeled him (rightfully so) as an auteur, then we must also realize that he is always aware of what he’s putting up on the screen.

And maybe that’s why I speak so passionately about Ghosts of Mars: a film like In the Mouth of Madness is acceptable to jump on and hail as a cult classic, but it’s as if people couldn't dismiss Ghosts of Mars quick enough. I don’t know if it’s because people are more keen on deconstructing a horror film rather than a seemingly cheesy action film to find the finer elements within, but this action-western-science fiction-comedy-horror movie set in Mars just immediately turned people off, Carpenter fan or not. American critics, especially, were completely dismissive of it upon release (Ebert and Roeper being one of few exceptions), but as has been the case with nearly all of Carpenter’s films, Europe kind of “got” Ghosts of Mars. France in particular saw what Carpenter was up to with his seemingly simplistic films.

This essay is getting away from me, so let me rein it in and attempt to wrap it up by returning to Erich’s point about the film being Brechtian: Audiences in the summer of 2001 were  going into the theater thinking they were going to get one kind of movie and were gob-smacked at what was unfolding in front of them. I’m sure for many the thought that ran through their head was, “this isn't what a big-budget summer action movie is supposed to look like!” Instead of being engaged in the action, the audience is made fully aware of how over-the-top and contrived everything in the film is. There is no suspension of disbelief going on here. So, for most American audiences, it seems, the reactions was primarily that of anger and confusion due to the heavy metal soundtrack, the odd Martian monsters, Natasha Henstridge’s acting, and the bizarre narrative touches. So, yeah, Brechtian. I don’t think Carpenter ever intended for his film to be viewed through the lens of what the action film was in 2001. And just to hammer the point home, Carpenter has Ice Cube look into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, as the film fades to black.

It’s a shame that most audiences didn't catch on to what Carpenter was up to in 2001. Ghosts of Mars seems like the perfect candidate for a resurgence so that people can look at it more critically as a comedy than just a seemingly lazily made action film. But of course it’s not just a matter people “not getting” Ghosts of Mars; no, that would be downright stupid and obnoxious of me to even consider that. I’m sure people genuinely dislike Ghosts of Mars for its bizarre heavy metal soundtrack, the not-so-great acting, the campy dialogue, the bright red sets, the narrative quirks, etc., but I just hope people will look at it with fresh eyes (hell, people are now claiming Ishtar is great, so I think we can give Ghosts of Mars a fair shake) and see it for what it is: a very deliberate attempt by Carpenter to do for an entire film what he did with the nearly six minute fight scene in They Live: he’s exaggerating for effect.

Due to the commercial and critical failure of Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter was simply bummed out and burnt out. He felt like he couldn't make the kind of movies audiences wanted to see anymore, and he was growing more and more weary of the whole filmmaking ordeal. Carpenter would take a sabbatical from feature films instead focusing on his Xbox (in a recent interview, he speaks of his interest in video games, essentially making the point that he’d much rather be on his couch playing Xbox than making movies because the worlds/action/characters/narratives that the really good games create are far more immersive than anything film can do). He wouldn't make a feature for eight years, returning to the horror genre with 2010’s The Ward; however, in-between Ghosts of Mars and The Ward, Carpenter made two shorts, Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life, for Showtime’s “Master’s of Horror” series.


  1. It's finally here! I've been waiting on this one, and a strong, passionate thing it was, too.

    I last saw the movie in 2002, and you have convinced me at least (particularly with the They Live fight scene comparison) that I should give it a second chance. At the time, the soundtrack and the generally goofy scenario felt like huge problems, but I want to believe the things you've argued here. So let's put it that I have every intention of revisiting the film in the next couple of months, and I'll keep this essay in mind as I do that.

    1. Thanks! But, I don't know, man, that sounds like it's a little too much responsibility on me. I mean, if you hate it again, I hope you'll still come back! Hehe.

      One thing I did forget to mention was that I think a lot of audiences at the time had the same reaction to Ghosts that they did to Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. I think the latter hasn't disappeared from the collective critical memory because critics are more apt to give Verhoeven a pass on something as satire (which Troopers is) becuase he's notorious for taking a piss out of America's favorite genres. So even though American audiences have never fully been on board with what Verhoeven is truly up to in his films (they still pay money to see them for the most part), the American critics have always kind of "gotten" him.

      I think Carpenter's more deadpan approach (there's no obvious moment like ED-209 shooting someone to shreds for 10 minutes) just went way over the heads of critics who probably weren't looking for it to begin with. Because let's be honest, there wasn't much in Carpenter's oeuvre to suggest he was willing to do such satire. So Ghosts of Mars became just another maligned, cheesy Sci-fi film with audiences a la the equally goofy and tongue-in-cheek Starship Troopers. The latter just had a filmmaker more notorious for such things, and so critics were quicker to get the joke.

      Or, maybe I'm just talking out of my ass. I hope you'll report back with your thoughts on the film after you look at it again.

      Thanks, as always, for following along.

    2. And I kept mixing up "audiences" and "critics" in my point there. I hope that's not too confusing. I'm talking about both, but my main point is about the critical failure of Carpenter at the end of his career versus the more celebrated Verhoeven.

  2. And yet here's another one I'll have to revisit. I remember hating this when it first came out, but I think I never gave this my full attention when I watched it. Interesting review, as usual. I may have missed it, but are you going to review any of Carpenter's "Master of Horror" episodes? Maybe do them both in one post, as they are both an hour long and were intended to be mini-movies essentially. Just got done re-watching "Cigarette Burns" today, and loved it even more than I first did.

    1. Thanks for following along, Lee. Nice to know people are still reading these, hehe. To answer your question: yes, I'll be doing the Masters of Horror in one post. I just watched Cigarette Burns this morning. I found it extremely interesting and effective. A lot of similar themes that are found in In the Mouth of Madness and Wes Craven's New Nightmare. I'll have a post up Monday morning on it.

  3. takk for flott innlegg, vil de bli savnet.
    Alle de beste i fremtiden, og vi likte mye mens du leser innlegget ditt.

    snekker halden and snekker hvaler