Few would argue that 'Ghosts of Mars' is one John Carpenter's better efforts. In fact, it's downright derivative of the director's own works. Throw in a heaping helping of 'Assault on Precinct 13' and 'Escape from New York,' add a dash of 'They Live,' and mix it up with some 'Vampires' and 'In the Mouth of Madness,' and you have 'Ghosts of Mars.' Yet, as campy, stupid and downright cheap as 'Ghosts of Mars' is -- and this really isn't a good movie -- I would be lying if I said I didn't really sorta kinda liked it.
The story is total B-movie pulp. Natasha Henstridge stars as Lt. Melanie Ballard, who is assigned to go pick up legendary criminal James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) from a supposedly desolate Mars prison planet. Along with a ragtag team of military grunts (including Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and a hilarious Pam Grier), the team soon discovers something is up on them thar red hills of Mars. Some Marilyn Manson-looking dude is running around with his zombie buddies, chopping and killing everyone in sight. Can Melanie and Desolation form an unlikely alliance to defeat the monsters and make it out of Mars alive?
'Ghosts of Mars' most obviously echoes Carpenter's 'Escape from New York' and 'Assault on Precinct 13.' It's kinda of like a greatest hits Carpenter, only without the "greatest." I do like Ice Cube, but identical army fatigue pants aside, he's hardly Kurt Russell's Snake Plisskin, is he? Also derivative is the confined prison planet location which, despite all the red lighting and cheesy fake rock sets, is a carbon copy of 'Assault's inner-city precinct house. And the action is late-era Carpenter, meaning it cribs from the weird flashforward/dissolve editing style of 'Vampires' and 'In the Mouth of the Madness' rather than the cleaner, more effective style of 'Escape from New York' or 'Big Trouble in Little China.'
Perhaps what is most dispiriting about 'Ghosts of Mars' is that Carpenter just seemed lazy. His slow pace, lifting of '50s B-movie cliches, low-key acting and thrifty special effects used to seem cool in the '70s and '80s, but now it borders on the incompetent. I can understand why Carpenter fans dislike this movie, and why most critics skewered it. It really is impossible to defend -- it offers little that is original, looks tacky, and quite frankly, isn't really about anything.
So why did I enjoy 'Ghosts of Mars?' I guess this is one of those guilty pleasure movies for me. Once the ridiculous Anthrax score kicks in, and Cube and Henstridge start drop-kicking the shit out of that Marilyn Manson dude, I couldn't help but smile. Plus, 'Ghosts of Mars' at least isn't boring -- the movie is one non-stop scene of campy delight after another, whether it's watching the zombies throw saw blades like frisbees to decapitate people, or reveling in pre-'L Word' Pam Grier savoring every one of her horrible lines as a matriarchal, lesbian team commandant. And the rest of the cast, particularly DuVall, Statham, and Joanna Cassidy, look more and more embarrassed as the movie progresses -- love it.
Still, there is nothing I can say to persuade you to give 'Ghosts of Mars' a shot. Yes, it's bad, and probably represents the nadir of a once vibrant, resolutely independent filmmaker. But Carpenter is no ironic, post-modern guy, and 'Ghosts of Mars' -- for better or worse, likely worse -- is played absolutely straight. Which, for me, is what makes it so much fun. 'Ghosts of Mars' kinda sucks, but it's an enjoyable kind of sucky.
Sony presents 'Ghosts of Mars' in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.39:1). This movie is about eight years old now, but I honestly don't think Sony has upgraded the high-def master for this movie in all that time. Though it boasts an upgrade over the previous, already good DVD version, I'm not sure it's substantially better.
The dominant color in 'Ghosts of Mars' is red, which is usually one of the hardest hues for video to reproduce cleanly. To the great credit of this transfer, even the deepest reds and crimsons look solid and rich. The color palette is quite nice, really, with the inky blacks and well-modulated contrast only helping the image further. Detail and depth are pretty good, too. As for the source, it's a bit grainy, but that's typical of John Carpenter, and the movie does have a nice, film-like look. Unfortunately, the boost in resolution only makes the movie look cheaper, so perhaps, in this case, the move to high-def is not the best friend to 'Ghosts of Mars.'
A new English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track has been produced for 'Ghosts of Mars.' Sadly, it's not all that much better than the standard Dolby track on the previous DVD. Even chintzier than the visuals, the sound design of 'Ghosts of Mars' screams B-flick.
I kinda expected a better surround presence. Aside from the faintly ridiculous heavy metal soundtrack, discrete effects are sporadically employed. It's kinda odd -- some moments the rears are alive with sound, others they seem quiet. Don't expect any neat-o atmosphere, either -- for all the skulking about on the Mars surface, there is little in the way of creepy sounds or score bleed in the rears. Tech specs are fine, with decent spatiality to dynamic range, and healthy -- if not exceptional -- low bass. Dialogue sounds fine, but again, the soundtrack feels cheap all around.
Sony ports over all the bonus features found on the previous DVD. Unfortunately, it's a rather lame bag -- there's not much here of interest aside from the audio commentary. (All video is in 480i/MPEG-2 only.)
Okay, so 'Ghosts of Mars' is hardly a highpoint in the career of John Carpenter. It recalls too many of his other, better films, and it's a pretty shoddy production all around. However, I kinda enjoyed the flick on a C-movie level, and even bad Carpenter has its charms. This Blu-ray is solid, with good video and audio, and only-OK supplements. I can't recommend 'Ghosts of Mars' on Blu-ray for more than a rental, unless you're a Carpenter devotee.