Ghosts of Mars (2001)

John Carpenter’s last cinema feature (prior to 2011’s The Ward), Ghosts of Mars was an attempt to recreate the success of his second outing, Assault on Precinct 13, by relocating a western plot to a modern genre setting. In this case, he puts a Hawks-like ensemble cast on Mars and yet manages to incorporate a prison set and a train chase straight out of a ’50s backlot. Ice Cube plays killer convict Desolation Williams, a less impressive version of Darwin Joston’s Napoleon Wilson from Assault, teaming up with cop Natasha Henstridge and assorted b-movie faces including Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier and Joanna Cassidy.

All of which sounds like a recipe for a Carpenter classic, but the movie is derailed by its glaring weaknesses. The plot involves miners on Mars being possessed and turning into evil self-mutilating heavy metal fans for some reason (probably because Steve Vai and Anthrax agreed to play on the soundtrack), which might have sounded cool to me when I was 15 but just looks stupid now, creating lots of unnecessary shouting and make-up.

postit More problematic is Carpenter’s decision to saddle the movie with a cumbersome flashback structure involving Henstridge on trial, which not only robs the movie of any suspense but also leaves you wondering why he bothered to attempt sophistication in such a basic set-up.

Ghosts of Mars has an undeservedly bad rep – it’s much more entertaining and less mean-spirited than his previous movie, Vampires; Ice Cube is surprisingly funny and Henstridge is surprisingly convincing as the heroine. The action scenes are fast and gory and the effects are variable, but it’s a lot of fun if you forget how good Carpenter used to be.

The extras on the disk are straightforward behind-the-scenes footage, and make a pleasant change from the usual glossy EPK nonsense. As always Carpenter is in great form on the commentary track, pointing out all the mistakes and obvious model train shots, and Henstridge tries hard to keep up. But what’s it doing with a ’15’ cert in the UK?

Mild Peril Rating: ★★½☆☆

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