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Ghosts of Mars

Hey, if you're a fan of mutilation, dismemberment and decapitation, have I got a movie for you! John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (that is the full title) is a flick that makes director Paul Verhoeven look like an effeminate humanist.

The story, such as it is, is a combination of Alien, The Road Warrior, and most of John Carpenter's oeuvre. Natasha Henstridge (best known as the naked alien in Species) stars as mid-level cop who's been sent, along with four other police officers, to the remote mining town of Shining Canyon. Their assignment is to transport the notorious criminal James "Desolation" Williams, whose primary offense is to have a nickname with more syllables than his real moniker.

But something's a little weird in this Martian hamlet. It's Friday night and yet the streets are empty. And why are the town's residents sleeping in the jail and committing suicide? And what's up with all of those severed heads off in the distance?

Well, you see, the miners have inadvertently woken up a strange alien force lying dormant in the Martian rocks. The disease-like creature (it's colored green, in case we weren't sure) invades our bodies, takes over our minds, and makes us dress up like Marilyn Manson. No wonder everyone's killing themselves.

One of the cops makes the mistake of creating a disturbance, and the hordes of disease-possessed freaks attack the prison where our heroes are holed up. Realizing they're outnumbered, the cops deputize the criminals and band together to fight the menace. Their only hope is to break out of the jail and reach the train station where hopefully salvation awaits.

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars begins as a potentially enjoyable B-movie. The opening sequence of a ghost train riding out of the foggy gloom sets the stage for chills and thrills. Unfortunately, the movie's script is constructed as one long flashback, which makes it pretty clear which characters are going to survive and which are going to be grist for the decapitating throng.

Is the old saying goes, if you see a gun in the first half of a movie, expect to see it shooting in the second half. And there are a LOT of guns in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. While the planet of Mars has a grungy, dirty feel to it, the weaponry has the beautiful sheen of freshly polished metal. In fact, some of it's so shiny that Natasha Henstridge could use it as a mirror to keep her blonde, coifed hair perfectly in place.

Fans of video-game violence will be disappointed in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, however. The fight scenes are embarrassingly static, as if Carpenter had forgotten how to make a swinging mace look real. And the numerous explosions are accompanied by extras jumping into the air; they look like bad gymnasts instead of people being cut down by shrapnel.

Of the many offenses in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, the most irritating is the outdated racial profiling. Though the movie is set 175 years in the future, all of the criminals are black and Hispanic men, while all of the cops are white. Actually, that's not completely true. Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) is a cop, but since she's killed off in the film's first fifteen minutes, she doesn't really count. That most of the film's black characters are killed off much sooner than any of the white characters is just icing on this cliche-ridden cake.

And just when I thought Carpenter was going to ignore the cardinal tenet of space heroines, Henstridge shows up in a form-fitting tank top and panties (powder-puff blue, in case you're wondering). With just seconds to spare, the ultimate cliche scored the losing run. The roar of the crowd was deafening. Or maybe that was just the noise of people scrambling for the doors. 

by J. Robert Parks 8/13/2001

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