Film review: Ghosts of Mars

5 June 2005


It's got a train, it can't be too bad Uniform trenchcoats (senior officers only) Our stars

It was an utter box-office failure, even compared with the "serious" Mars films of a couple of years earlier, making back less than a third of its production costs in gross. John Carpenter's always been a very uneven director - for every Big Trouble in Little China or Dark Star there seems to be a Vampires or Escape from LA. And the first-billed star in the credits is a rapper. How good can it be?

Well, strangely enough, not too bad at all. The "Mars" part is pretty minor; this could have worked just about as well as a horror-Western, though we wouldn't have had the neat industrial train design. For that matter, Assault on Precinct 13 was pretty much the same film in terms of overall plot: "a huge number of bad guys try to kill a small number of good guys, who hole up for a while then attempt to make a break for it".

But the devil and the angel are in the details. The cast do a pretty decent job with their parts, and manage to keep straight faces for the one-liners. The estimable Mr Cube has a comparatively small role, which could easily have become scenery-chewing but which he keeps on the leash; Natasha Henstridge doesn't show a whole lot of personality, but is just about plausible as someone used to dangerous situations (something many actors simply can't project), and her underwear scene rivals Sigourney Weaver's in Alien; Jason Statham steals every scene where he appears, just as in everything he's in; and Pam Grier dies early but clearly has a lot of fun stalking around in her officer's black leather trenchcoat. Slightly unusually for an action film, the body count builds up slowly enough that we do actually see people other than the leads getting to do something.

The build-up is better than the resolution, as is so often the case with horror films: people going missing without explanation will always raise more tension than seeing the reason why those people are missing. Especially when the reason is a bunch of self-mutilating body-painted types who wouldn't look very out of place in your average goth club.

There's not a whole lot that's new here, but it fits together well, the cinematography is excellent, and if the fight scenes sometimes look like carefully-choreographed ballets at least you can see what's going on - and they're not toned down for teenagers the way every other director seems to do these days. (The same decision presumably influenced the film's strong message about the use of hallucinogenic drugs.)

Definitely worth a rental, especially if you have beer in the house.