Monday, June 01, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001)

"I got into this business wanting to make westerns, but they stopped making them - so I figured I had to find something I could do in this profession that was more popular than westerns. And you might not think so, but there are a lot of similarities between westerns and horror movies. They're both about archetypal characters, good and evil. So I adapted."

-
John Carpenter

Today, Hollywood is obsessively remaking John Carpenter’s films at a blazing rate. In fact, much of the auteur’s early career has already been re-tooled and re-imagined, with remakes of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), and the in-production Halloween 2 proving notable examples of the trend.

Similarly, remakes of Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) have also been announced.

Despite the fact that an unprecedented percentage of Carpenter’s big-screen career (roughly 33% of his output…) has already been exhumed and re-purposed for modern silver-screen consumption, his reputation with modern critics is -- to phrase it politely -- not so good.

In August of 2001, his last theatrical release, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, was met with almost universal critical scorn, and -- even more alarmingly -- an almost casual sense of dismissal.


But very few, if any, of Ghosts of Mars’ myriad detractors paused for even a minute to seriously gaze at the artistic choices underlining the film’s storytelling approach, particularly Carpenter's Godard-esque fracturing of time with the device of the flashback.

Instead, callow reviewers categorized the film as "shoddy,” “lazy” and even one created on “auto-pilot.”

Although Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both awarded John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars two thumbs-up, they were among the few critics -- and in my eyes -- the proud ones, who recognized this unusual and intriguing film for what it was. Instead of reflexively disdaining it for what it simply was not. They reviewed the film; not their own expectations or misperceptions.

So what is it about John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars that irritated so many critics so deeply? And why were contemporary audiences so grievously out of step with Carpenter’s 2001 horror-thriller? In discovering the answers to those questions, we must look back at Carpenter’s film career as a whole, as well as the cinematic influences (or “homages”) underlining Ghosts of Mars. But first, a recap of the film’s plot.

This is About Dominion: It’s Not Their Planet Anymore.

Ghosts of Mars’ narrative commences in the year 2176 AD, on the partially-terra-formed frontier planet Mars. The ruling government is a Matriarchy known as "The Matronage," and said Administration apparently answers to a shadowy business conglomeration called “The Cartel.”

One day, a train -- an ore freighter, number 74 Yankee Trans-Mariner -- barrels through the harsh Martian wasteland into the capitol city of Chryse. The sole person aboard the vehicle is a hand-cuffed Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a veteran police officer with a troubling drug habit. She's addicted to a street narcotic called "Clear."

In her “after action” report to a quorum of the Matronage, Ballard reports on the disposition of her missing team. Under the command of Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), Ballard’s squad -- including rookie Bashira (Clea Du Vall), and boastful male “breeder” Jericho (Jason Statham) -- set out several days earlier for a frontier town called Shining Canyon in the Southern Sector. The team’s assignment was to take into custody the notorious, dangerous and storied criminal, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube).

However, upon arrival in the mining town, the police found virtually all the civilians there sadistically murdered…cut up, disemboweled and strung up. And Williams - the obvious suspect -- was locked safely in a cell the whole time, meaning that he could not have committed the crimes himself.

Another survivor in town was a squirrely scientist named Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy). She had arrived in Shining Canyon following a disaster in another part of the valley. While mining an unexplored mountain, she and several workers discovered a “tomb” locked away deep in a Martian mountainside. By coming into physical contact with the door/seal of the ancient tomb, Whitlock activated some kind of malevolent “hurricane,” actually the “ghosts” or spirits of long dead, warrior Martians. "I opened Pandora's Box, we woke it up" she told Ballard and the other cops.

These mysterious Martian spirits could be carried on the wind and were capable of possessing one human being after another. When one human host died, the ghost inside would simply migrate to another human body, making the aliens virtually unstoppable. The ghosts’ purpose was simple: “vengeance on anything or anything that tries to lay claim” to Mars.

Ballard reports about how Desolation and his criminal associates (Uno, Dos and Tres) joined forces with the surviving police officers to escape from town, which quickly became overrun with homicidal Martian Warriors in (mutilated) human bodies. For a time, Ballard even became possessed by one such alien ghost, but her addiction to tetromonochloride (or “Clear”) actually enabled her to beat back the invasion inside her very body.


Although Ballard, Desolation and several others evacuated safely to the returning train, Melanie soon recognized that the war with the Martians would not simply be contained to one insignificant frontier town. Rather, she realized this war was about “dominion” and so decided with the others to reverse trajectory, and attempt to destroy the Martians by blowing up the town’s nuclear reactor.

During the course of the crisis, Melanie and Desolation Williams developed a rivalry, friendship and sense of admiration for each other’s abilities, a camaraderie that ultimately made their campaign successful, even with heavy casualties.

Now, however, the officials of the Matronage view Ballard’s story with cynicism and suspicion. They order her to rest as they continue to investigate her unbelievable testimony. But before long, a strange, malicious wind blows into the City…
A Scientifically Significant Find: Ghosts of Movies & Genres Past
One important way to judge the caliber of an artist and his body of work is to study how he brings “himself” and his personal set of interests and aesthetics from one cinematic project to the next. If you gaze at all those projects together, you should then be able to ascertain the points of a career ethos, an umbrella of consistency that helps you better understand individual productions.

In Carpenter’s case, one might point to his visual legerdemain: that trademark, slow-moving and elegant camera work which forges a kind of “trance” state that leaves lulled audiences susceptible to foreground jolts and soundtrack stingers. Alternately, you could point to his self-styled, martial sounding, hard-driving musical cues on the soundtrack. In terms of theme, Carpenter's narratives often feature a heightened sense of “male bonding” or camaraderie among ethnically-diverse characters, not to mention a distinct distaste or unease for authority, the status quo, or "The establishment."

These brush strokes help students view Carpenter as a consistent artist with a wide variety of films stretching over four decades. In his case, we also have at least one other possible guide post: the important quote at the top of this very piece. It reminds us that Carpenter deeply admires the Western genre and knowingly brings many elements of that form to each of his films.

Again, a love of old Hollywood Westerns (and also old Hollywood films in general) is neither a surprise nor a revelation, especially considering that Carpenter grew up – not unlike his movie brat brethren (Spielberg, Lucas, Landis, Dante) -- watching the big screen efforts of Howard Hawks, John Ford and John Huston.

But specifically, Carpenter’s much-acknowledged favorite film is 1959’s Rio Bravo, a Western starring John Wayne. Over Carpenter's long career, that Hawks film has served as the specific template or blueprint for no less than three Carpenter films: Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness (1987), and, yes, Ghosts of Mars.

Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Rio Bravo is an early siege-style film in which a group of heroic characters must work together to repel the equivalent of a hostile invading force. In Rio Bravo, audiences meet the unlikely “heroic” triumvirate of a “sheriff, a barfly” and a cripple.” In order, they are: Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin) – an alcoholic – and an old man, named Stumpy (Walter Brennan).

The face of evil is represented by wealthy Nathan Burdette, whose brother Joe is being incarcerated by the honorable Chance inside the local jail. Burdette proceeds to close down the town so that Chance and his men can’t leave, and -- importantly -- so that no additional law enforcement can get in. Then Burdette sends in hired killers to “prod” Chance into releasing his brother from behind bars. Our three heroes (at least two of them quite untraditional...) work together to combat this siege and defeat Burdette. In the process, they come to understand, admire and depend on one another. Their bond is unbreakable.

Carpenter recreated the central premise of Rio Bravo in Assault on Precinct 13. In that film, it was Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) assuming the John Wayne role of honorable law enforcement official. He was assisted not by a drunk, however, but by a notorious criminal named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), and a Hawksian woman, a police secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer). In this case, they were protecting an imperiled citizen from a local (and extremely violent...) gang, Street Thunder.
Going into specifics, one can pinpoint how cleverly Carpenter updated the Rio Bravo template from the Old West to the urban, inncer city blight of the1970s exploitation era. The so-called"cut-throat song" of Hawks’ film is transformed into the gang banner or cholo in Assault on Precinct 13. The wagon filled with dynamite that initiates Burdette’s ultimate defeat in Rio Bravo becomes a cast-off acetylene canister in the Carpenter’s film, and so on.

Assault on Precinct 13 even repeats the trademark action moment in Rio Bravo in which Colorado (Ricky Nelson) throws Chance his shotgun as hit men close in for the kill, but only here the quick action is shared by Bishop and Wilson in the under-siege police station.

In Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter creates another heroic troika of equally unlikely origins, and -- once again -- changes the setting, the terrain for the battle. The Old West/Inner City location becomes instead a frontier town on Mars (also replete with a jail building). The heroic Ballard, like Dude before her, must overcome a devastating personal vice (drug addiction, rather than alcoholism), and Desolation Williams is but a future variation of noble crook, Napoleon Wilson (you can even detect the similarity in names there…Williams/Wilson).

Howard Hawks (unofficially) re-made Rio Bravo as El Dorado in 1967 and as Rio Lobo in 1970 and he is championed as an auteur for, among many fine qualities, his sense of consistency. Now Carpenter has also vetted the same Western archetype three times, but modern audiences are so distant from the original Rio Bravo (or original Assault on Precinct 13, for that matter...), that his method, his "homage" is not recognized, let alone championed for the clever alterations and updates he has injected into the longstanding formula.

Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 aren’t the only important antecedents to 2001's Ghosts of Mars. The film also serves as a futuristic, sci-fi version of the 1964 British classic Zulu, which was also a “transplanted” version of the American Western genre (and particularly the sub-genre of the siege.)

Zulu recounted the (true) story of a landmark 1879 battle at "Rorke's Drift" in Africa. Miraculously, 150 British soldiers held out (and survived) a siege by 4,000 Zulu warriors at a small supply depot and hospital. The Zulu attackers in the film were deliberately modeled after the Western genre's (mostly innaccurate) stereotype of Indians as frightening, aggressive savages, ones with vastly different rules of warfare than those of the “civilized” West. Zulu's director, Cy Endfield even had his Zulu extras watch Western films to get down the behavior of Indian marauders in preparation for their attack scenes.

The Martian warriors of Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars clearly perform the same function, and -- like their Zulu or Indian predecessors in film history -- are visually differentiated from the force of the establishment/civilization. The Martians are the savage "uncivilized" attackers, and with their strange body piercings, sharpened teeth and battle paints, they represent an “alien” or unfamiliar aesthetic. More than that, the Martian ghosts represent the indigenous population resisting an Imperialist occupation. Following Ghosts of Mars' release, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers (2002) similarly utilized some of the impressive compositions and ideas of Zulu (as well as the seemingly impossible battle/siege scenario) as the foundation for the Helm's Deep sequence of that fantasy.

Fans of Zulu may find other corollaries between that film's presentation of scoundrel Henry Hook and Ghosts of Mars’ thief, Desolation Williams. Both are rebellious characters (or anti-heroes) who fight successfully against the Establishment...and the enemy.

Also, Zulu opens with the narration of a communique detailing the shocking defeat of a British Outpost in Africa (at Isandhlwana) by the Zulu forces. Melanie Ballard in Ghosts of Mars fulfills the same function in Carpenter's 2001 narrative; her voice-over narration representing the “early” warning of a coming storm on Mars..

In much more general terms, Carpenter has also crafted Ghosts of Mars as a clever homage to the Western format. overall. His film features a primitive frontier town (not the Tech-Noir metropolis of Blade Runner, for example), employs trains and balloons as conveyances, rather than spaceships or hover-crafts, and he arms his police with rifles and pistols…not lasers or light sabers. Basically, Carpenter has “terra-formed” the conventions of one genre to make them fit another, transforming his Martian movie into a pitched battle between futuristic cowboys and extra-terrestrial Indians.

Again, if consistency of purpose and mode of operation represent the trademarks of a talented and committed artist, consider how often Carpenter has appropriated the concepts associated with the Western and nudged them into new (and currently popular) genres. It happened not merely with Assault on Precinct 13 and the form of the 70s exploitation film, but with Vampires (1998) as well, a horror film which opened with a sunlit siege on an abandoned Western farmhouse. That film also gave us another Neo-Rio Bravo group of bantering heroic characters: Jack Crow, Father Guiteau, and the afflicted (by vampirism, not alcoholism…) Montoya. There is also -- no doubt intentionally -- a set-piece set in a jail in Vampires, again recalling Rio Bravo. Even the general settings of Vampires -- brutal deserts and “ghost towns” -- is far more simpatico with Western film tradition than the established conventions of the vampire movie.

On at least one memorable occasion, Carpenter even noted that his Lovecraft-inspired, cerebral horror film, In The Mouth of Madness (1994) was really...a Western. He has spent his career, then, re-purposing the tenets of an old, out-of-fashion form for new, fresh consumption. Any reasonable review of Ghosts of Mars, it seems, would -- by necessity -- judge Carpenter on how well he accomplishes this feat; and on how the film fits into his career tradition.

Finally, in addition to his well-documented love of Westerns (and even transplanted Westerns like Zulu), Carpenter has long been a genre fan, with a particular affection for the British Quatermass film of the 1950s and 1960s (The Creeping Unknown, Enemy from Space and Five Million Years to Earth). In particular, Five Million Years to Earth (1968) dealt with the concept of a Martian psychic force sweeping through London (after a buried rocket was excavated by workers toiling on a new underground subway line.)

These Martians had changed our human evolution (and were responsible for aspects of human mythology...), and they also exerted a strange, malevolent mental power. Of course, that last bit represents the set-up and Nature of the Martian Enemy in Ghosts of Mars as well. Incorporeal spirits of deadly and evil desires, and ones fully capable of possessing the living.
So, what we really have here in Ghosts of Mars is two-fold: it’s a deliberate tribute to the admired films of Carpenter’s youth (most importantly Rio Bravo, Zulu and Five Million Years to Earth), and a consistent continuation of Carpenter’s obsession with Westerns, and with transplanting Western conventions to new genres and new locations.

Damn, Girl! I Like You Already: The Vocabulary of Macho Bonding

One frequent point of contention about Ghosts of Mars involves the film’s stylized dialogue, which has been described by some critics as hackneyed, hopless or corny. But once again, it appears that a little context is necessary for an understanding of the film's modus operandi.

The characters in Ghosts of Mars do indeed boast a special brand of verbal sparring and linguistics, and it is explicitly the macho, virtually "mock-tough" dialogue of Howard Hawks Rio Bravo. In our gritty age of movie naturalism, this approach seems artificial and theatrical to many viewers who are unfamiliar with it. To people who grew up with Westerns in the 1950s, it just seems...natural (and actually, right.)

Melanie Ballard isn’t a slasher movie's “Final Girl” as such, but rather, perhaps, the ultimate evolution of the so-called Hawksian Woman (think Angie Dickinson), a character who “trusts completely her own spontaneous impulses of attraction and repulsion,” (as witnessed in her passionate, unexpected kiss with Jericho and her earlier turn-down of Braddock.) Ballard also boasts a “sense of identity beyond her alliances (with high society) and she is committed only to those personal ties she wishes to acknowledge.” (Tim Bywater, Thomas Sobchack, Introduction to Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film, Longman, 1989, page 72).

In other words, Ballard’s is nobody’s unquestioning fool: she just doesn’t take orders; she doesn’t obediently side with higher-ups. Instead, she boasts her own (cowboy?) “code,” and she’s not a joiner unless she chooses to be one. As she states to the avaricious Helena, she's as "straight as they come," a line laced with double meaning. She's a rebel (a heterosexual in a predominantly homosexual society), and she's a law enforcement official for her own purposes, not the purposes of her higher ups. She keeps her personal reasons for being a cop close to the vest, a sign of the "personal ties" she apparently has no wish to share.

Many of Carpenter’s films feature the tough, macho-talk associated with Old Hollywood's male-bonding, Western epics. This manner of expression is especially notable in Vampires -- but with updated 90s vulgarity -- between Crow and Guiteau, and in Assault on Precinct 13, where Wilson is given to such grandiose comments as that he was "born out of time!" Here, the same theatrical, slightly-overdramatic style is extended to include -- for the first time in Carpenter lore -- a woman in essentially the John Wayne role.

This style of wordplay also means that Ballard and Desolation share a tough-talking bond that borders on the flirtatious. “I never give my word,” Desolation says. “I never make deals with crooks,” Ballard shoots back. And on and on. It's banter. It's one-up-manship. It's...deliberate.

In the film’s last scene, Desolation notes with admiration that Ballard would make a great criminal, and Ballard responds in kind, saying he’d make a great cop. Then they look at each other and say "Nah!" Again, it’s a kind of duet: two “opposites” circle one another with admiration, having learned to respect each other despite their obvious differences. It’s the same dance step that Bishop and Wilson shared in Assault on Precinct 13, although in that case, the line crossed was not sex-based (male/female) but race-based (black/white).

When confronted with certain death and total apocalypse, Ballard and Desolation intensify their dance, revealing aspects of their personal codes of conduct. Ballard wonders what makes Desolation tick. He answers that if she sticks around, he’ll tell her some day. She wonders when that will be, and Desolation answer “when the tide is high, and the water’s rising…” To some folks, this sort of dialogue may seem cliched, but it's more accurately just old-fashioned, and a reflection of the kind of film Ghosts of Mars seeks to be: a deliberate evocation of the 1950s Hollywood Western. People seemed to like this approach to dialogue just fine in Assault on Precinct 13, but deride it in Ghosts of Mars.

Note too that the characters in Ghosts of Mars are prone to long, extensive monologues about their backgrounds and histories; about the places they came from, and the lessons they learned. “I don’t give a damn about this planet,” says Desolation, “It’s been trying to kill me since the day I was born.” This too is Western-speak. To complain about it or call it corny would be like decrying the Iambic Pentameter of Shakespeare as archaic, or calling the gutter vocabulary of Quentin Tarantino films unnecessary. When in a space western...you talk as though you are in a space western.
Your Rights Are Protected by the Matronage: Women are from Mars and Men are from Venus.

John Carpenter has always been a maverick, one who uses his films to brazenly question authority and "the Establishment."

In They Live, Carpenter revealed Republicans, Yuppies, and even film critics were secret alien invaders. In Vampires, he suggested that the Catholic Church was corrupt, and in league with devilish vampires. In Escape from L.A., Carpenter had his hero, Snake Plissken, plunge the world into total darkness and primitivism because it needed a fresh start after the (lifetime) term of an evangelical Christian president. Even in Halloween, Carpenter didn’t restore order…but let the Boogeyman remain on the loose.

Ghosts of Mars is possessed of a similarly anarchic, anti-authority bent. In the future envisioned by the film, patriarchy is entirely discredited (and remember, the film was made and released shortly after the Clinton Lewinsky scandal and Impeachment Trial). But Carpenter’s argument in this case seems to be that the more things change, the more things actually stay the same. The Matronage is described in unflattering terms as being in thrall to big business (the unseen, mysterious Cartel). And sexual harassment is still a huge concern in 2176, though here it is played out between the arrogant ruling lesbians (like Pam Grier’s character) who can advance the careers of “straights” (like Ballard, and Bashira) if only they submit to sexual demands. It's an Old Girls Club instead of an Old Boy's Club, but the abuse of power remains the same.

Even with women in charge, “the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe” to quote Star Trek IV. Here, the women of the Matronage are so concerned with procedure and their reputations that they are unable to conceive of the grave Martian threat until it is much too late. They have becomeimpotent, unimaginative and foolish, and they will soon be destroyed for their traspasses. Just as Order was overturned in They Live, Escape from L.A., In The Mouth of Madness and other Carpenter films.

Men are clearly the underclass here. Jericho (Statham) is around, apparently only as a sex object. He’s known as a “breeder” and consistently brags about his bedroom abilities throughout the film. In this world, a man has been reduced, essentially, the size of his “dick.” He’s nothing more. At one point, Desolation Williams even notes (without a trace of irony or humor...) that he’s been on the run from The Woman (not The Man) his whole life. In other words, Ghosts of Mars envisions the same minorities existing in the future, but different overlords...and the same discrimination. It’s politically incorrect, perhaps, but again, classic, maverick Carpenter. He doesn’t see humans as “evolving.” The planet may change, the dominant sex may change, but our human nature won’t. This is especially important in a film that pits man and woman against another kind of nature (Martian nature…).

Some critics and audiences felt that the matriarchy aspect of Ghosts of Mars was just thrown in to make the film seem different or unique. On the contrary, it is critical to the film's themes. Without it, Carpenter would not have an Establishment to rail against. The Matronage also exists so Carpenter can contrast "pure" (if evil...) Martian nature and corruptible human nature. The existence of a matriarchy also allows for the ultimate evolution of the Hawksian Woman. Ballard is now -- in this world of dominant females -- able to be a crucial part of the heroic triumvirate or club that in the Old West was limited to male membership.

You Men Love to Exaggerate: The Flashback and the Human Equation

I'm not certain precisely why, but many critics and viewers also seemed to have a terrible time with the fractured narrative flow of Ghosts of Mars. iThe film's story is recounted as a series of progressive flashbacks within flashbacks. Again, the accusation was made that Carpenter's decision to utilize flashbacks was somehow random or unconsidered. Again, it seems to me that no one was giving Carpenter the benefit of the doubt that he deserved.

Consider that Ghosts of Mars concerns, in a very potent way, the differences between two species (Man and Martian). Then consider the ways in which these species are so veru different. One such difference is the fact that as human beings, we must rely on the perspective of others, on eyewitness testimony, on hearsay, on reports, if we hope to grasp the full picture. Because of that fact, humans have the luxury of denial; of discounting that which is unpleasant, or counter to expectations. They can deny the truth because they haven't seen "everything" with their own eyes. Indeed, this is exactly what the Matronage does (and the reason it will lose the war with the single-minded Martians).

The Martians, by contrast, move from body to body with ease and impunity. They are, literally, immortal. When one corporeal host dies, the Martian parasites take another (if necessary spending a period of time "on the wind" between possessions). What this means, essentially, is that there is no such thing as "history." to a Martian. A Martian warrior is a witness to all of history as part of his/her natural life-span. He need not depend on books to tell him of the past, or previous generations to inform him about codes of conduct or laws. The Martian is...eternal.

The flashback story-structure of Ghosts of Mars -- adopting the perspectives of humans Ballard, Braddock, Jericho and Wilson, among others -- makes plain this very important distinction between species. As human beings we live on after death only in the memories of others (which the film obligingly plays out for us...). Again, this is completely unlike Martian nature, because the aliens move from body to body after corporeal death and no cessation.

When Melanie becomes possessed by the Martians, Jericho gives her some "Clear" (the drug she is addicted to...) The chemical substance allows Ballard's mind to stay free (or again, clear...) of Martian influence, and at the same time she is witness to a montage representing the militant history of all of Mars. This is why Ballard ultimately fights back at Shining Canyon: she has seen the superior (and different) nature of the enemy, and realizes that it must be fought now, not later. She was "clear" headed about it.

Listen, I fully realize that John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is not -- by any means -- a highly regarded genre film, but it nonetheless remains one of my personal favorites of recent vintage. I admire it for all the reasons I have enumerated above. I consider it admirably consistent with Carpenter's entire, multi-decade body of work, and it plays well as a variation on his familiar anti-authoritarian themes, as well as his love of the Western form.

Ghosts of Mars also came out the same year as Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001) and shares a great deal in common with that production. Both films concern a failed law enforcement action against a "primitive" but numerically-superior force. Both films concern competing world views, and both films certainly involve a siege of sorts. In fact, Ghosts of Mars may be the ultimate genre film about asymmetrical warfare. Since Martians don't die...they just possess more bodies...it's almost a perfect metaphor for the Iraq War today. One member of the insurgency dies; and another pops up to replace him. These ideas resonate very strongly in today's culture, even if the film came out in the pre-9/11.

On a much simpler level, Carpenter remains a classicist in terms of visuals, and I appreciate that. He is an expert at staging action, and he never once in Ghosts of Mars resorts to shaky cams, offensive lens flares (the critique du jour, apparently...), or quick cuts to cloak his stunts. In this film, we always have a clear sense of where we are, the geography of the battlefield, and the combatants involved. Without resorting to the cheap tricks of the trade, Carpenter manages to make his film exciting, tense and, in the end, rather spectacular.

Many critics seemed to walk in to John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars totally unprepared, without any knowledge of the filmmaker's history or predilections as a filmmaker. Some even called the movie a rip-off of Pitch Black (2000), when it is abundantly clear that the movie's antecedents have precious little to do with that (admirable) modern film and a helluva lot more to do with Carpenter's own background (and tradition of making anti-hero criminals his protagonists). The general perception of critics seemed to be that John Carpenter was just doing the same old thing, and that, for some reason, he needed to do something completely new.

Imagine -- just imagine -- if critics had greeted Martin Scorsese's latest gangster picture, The Departed (2007) that way (following Mean Streets, Good Fellas, Casino, etc.). Or if they had Tarantino's welcomed third crime picture (Jackie Brown) in such a fashion. Nobody comes out of those films and says, "Marty, Quentin break with your entire multi-decade history as a filmmaker and give me something..totally different. I'm bored of, you know, the stuff you like."

I'm not trying to be petulant here, but the savage reviews of Ghosts of Mars suggest that's exactly what critics expected of John Carpenter. They wanted him to make a movie as if though he were a different human being altogether, and as though he had no history, no track record, and no background as a filmmaker. He should have just abandoned all of his influences, and you know, not ripped off Pitch Black. I don't think it would bother me so much if the reviews didn't tend to be so dismissive of Carpenter as an artist, and of his entire career (one critic even called his "good" movies "half-accidents.")

I'm tempted to say the critics were possessed by Martians in this case, but I'm clearly in the minority in appreciating this picture. So maybe I'm the Martian...

There, I said it. I grok John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars.

13 comments:

  1. You've got some company here in loving Ghosts of Mars, John. Over the years, it's grown into one of my favorite later-day Carpenter efforts alongside In the Mouth of Madness. Carpenter often seems to be on the bitter side in interviews but it's not hard to understand why as he has to watch nearly every one of his films get dumped on in the short term and then venerated years later. I have no doubt Ghosts of Mars' time of reevalutation will come, too.

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  2. The problem I have with the recent Carpenter films is that somehow (and I can't put my finger on why) he's lost his grip on his storytelling. His work is always interesting, and I liked Ghosts of Mars, Escape From LA, Vampires, and In the Mouth of Madness without ever finding their stories particularly compelling (unlike, say, The Fog, which is actually not that good of a movie but keeps you engrossed). Films should be admired for their technique and thematic resonance on the second watch, or in hindsight after the first (a good story absorbs too much to allow that), but I found myself struggling to get through the initial viewing of his recent movies. There's nothing about Escape From LA that makes it a worse movie than Escape From New York (which has weaknesses galore) yet NY compels, LA repels. Why?

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  3. What a great analysis of this film! I haven't watched it in a while but I do remember enjoying it. Certainly not Carpenter's best film but definitely not his worst. I seem to remember critics slamming the film because they felt that Carpenter was rehashing his older work - i.e. Desolation Williams was just a Snake Plissken-type rip-off, etc.

    The problem I had with the film is that Carpenter really doesn't give the Martians much personality, backstory or really anything to ground them and make their threat something we should care about or fear. They just sort of come at our heroes in wave after wave and that's it. I think that that is the film's weakest point.

    I do love the whole idea of Matriarchal society and this probably my fave thing about the GHOSTS OF MARS.

    I also do like some of JC's later output, esp. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and I have a soft spot for VAMPIRES which is a really fun movie.

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  4. You all make good points in your comments.

    I know that some of Carpenter's later films I find myself "admiring" in an abstract sense more than actually, "enjoying" them, if that makes sense.

    I admired "In the Mouth of Madness" and elements of "Vampires" but I can't really say I got that old "kick" out of them. (The way I felt after Halloween, ESNY, The Fog, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, etc.)

    But Ghosts of Mars I really did get a kick out of when I saw it in the theater (maybe because of the similarities to one of my faves, Assault on Precinct 13).

    Originally, I had some problems with Vampires, but I have grown more and more fond of it over the years. At first, I found some of it borderline offensive, but now I just see it as Carpenter's anti-authority, anti-PC approach and can appreciate some of the raunchier jokes.

    It does seem that Carpenter films "age" better than they review on release. They seem to survive the test of time, even if they are not initially popular.

    My least favorite Carpenter film: Village of the Damned (1995).

    best,
    JKM

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    1. Anonymous11:07 AM

      What do you think of his Masters Of Horror segments? Im a big JC fan, I own most & have seen all his films/Tv stuff except for Pro-Life, what's it like? Only way i can see it is to buy it from the US but I've read nothing but bad things about it, people said The Ward was rubbish! I enjoyed it tho & felt critics & people were very unfair about it.

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  5. "My least favorite Carpenter film: Village of the Damned"

    Yeah, that one is pretty stinky, but my vote goes to MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN. Whew! That was an all-time low for JC, IMO.

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  6. J.D:

    Oh my gosh, I managed to block that one (MEMOIRS...) from my memory this morning.

    Yep, yep. You might be right about that one...

    best,
    JKM

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  7. As always, great essay!

    Carpenter has had one of the stranger careers of any relatively "high profile" genre director. He seems to be neither fish nor fowl. He's never going to get the respect he deserves as a master filmmaker from the mainstream critics because he's perceived to be "merely" a genre director. At the same time genre audiences are so finicky (and have such short memories) that he's been all but abandoned there as well. It truly saddens me because, pound for pound, he is one the few truly GREAT cinematic craftsmen still living (regardless of genre predilections or a lack thereof). With the exception of Scorsese and Spielberg no one can touch him when it comes to sheer exhilirating technique. He just can't seem to catch a break.

    And -- I guess there always has to be ONE in every crowd ;) -- but I dig VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Again, it's one of those flicks (like almost all of JC's work) that seems to get better each time I watch it.

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  8. Count Zero:

    I'm watching Village of the Damned again soon, so maybe I'll "see" it differently this time around, but I totally agree with you about his virtuoso technique and the fact that his "genre" credits win him no points with critics. I'm glad you mentioned audiences too...it does feel like they'e abandoned him; and by my eyes Carpenter is one of the true GREATS.

    My favorite Carpenter pictures: The Thing and Halloween

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  9. The only thing I've found that's related to Ghosts of Mars is a video game from 2000 called Martian Gothic: Unification. The story was penned by an sci-fi author, I read that somewhere.

    A lot of similarities there.
    It's always funny to me, how many similar things come out at the same time...

    Ghosts of Mars were awaken much like in the film. It appears no one is alive in the station and everyone is dead...and the dead don't stay dead.

    Still, haven't finished it. It's a hard game.

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  10. John --

    I know we've talked about this, but I'm 100% with you here...this is balls-out, total Carpenter. As much as I try to approach VAMPIRES with the same aplomb, I can't get any narrative/visual/kinetic pleasure out of it. Hell, I've thought about it in similar--but not exactly the same--terms as Joe does in his blog post, but that still doesn't get me uber-excited.

    GHOSTS OF MARS is the ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 remake that I actually recognize. While I still maintain that Carpenter's moment was the 2nd half of the 1970s/1980s, GHOSTS is about as good as he do for the early 2000s, a cynical blockbuster that is unfashionable but strong in its own ways.

    However, I really do like CIGARETTE BURNS, which many probably don't recognize as a true auteur film. However, I think it works self-reflexively to position Carpenter into the horror genre, as someone whose films are mythic, demand to be taken seriously (even when they are fun), and drive people to great lengths.

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  11. Count Zero:

    "At the same time genre audiences are so finicky (and have such short memories) that he's been all but abandoned there as well."

    I dunno about that. I still think that JC is a fan fave and many of his films still enjoy healthy cult followings and devotees.

    "It truly saddens me because, pound for pound, he is one the few truly GREAT cinematic craftsmen still living (regardless of genre predilections or a lack thereof)."

    I completely agree! He is quite underrated in this respect and for awhile there he was on an incredible run of films. It's too bad that he got burnt out by the system for awhile. I hope the couple of feature film projects he's been linked to actually happen.

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  12. This review is exemplary. I wish every movie I enjoyed received such a thoughtful, original, and dare I say entertaining analysis.

    (Well, I hadn't realised that you wrote Exploring Space:1999. Thanks for that, too.)

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