Ghosts of Mars (review)

Marilyn Manson on Mars

I’m a Mars geek. I loved Mission to Mars because it looked like it was shot there. So watching a big, industrial-ugly train chug across the Martian plains in the opening minutes of Ghosts of Mars gave me a bit of visceral thrill. Yeah, we’re on Mars, baby!

The thrill even managed to maintain itself for, oh, twenty minutes or so as director John Carpenter (Vampires) and his coscreenwriter Larry Sulkis lobbed comic-booky characters and their comic-booky story at us. Cops on Mars! Slick leather uniforms! Terraforming! Mining! Excellent.
Mars Police Force Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge: Bounce, Dog Park) is the only person on that train, and when it docks at Chryse, “First City on Mars,” she’s got some ‘splainin’ to do. She and her team were supposed to be picking up a prisoner from a distant mining colony unfortunately named Shining Canyon — with all the train stuff in this story, I kept hearing it as “Shining Time Station” and wondered when Ringo Starr as Mr. Conductor would show up.

Anyway, the mission clearly went wrong, and Ballard tells her superiors — and us — what happened out at Shining Time Station. It’s flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks as we get the story from Ballard, who got some of the story from her CO, Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier: Jackie Brown), some from the fellow officer who keeps hitting on her, Jericho Butler (Jason Statham: Snatch, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), some from a scientist they met there, Professor Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy: Dangerous Beauty), and some from the “most dangerous criminal on Mars,” James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube: Three Kings). He’s the guy they were supposed to be tranferring back to Chryse, and you’d think we’d discover why he has such an awesome nickname, but we never do.

And that’s pretty much the problem with Ghosts of Mars: it sets up some cool, pulpy ideas and then never runs with them. Most of the people at Shining Time Station seem to have been horribly murdered, decapitated and strung up, and I’ve been trying to come up with some clever twist on that infamous New York Post headline — “Headless Body in Topless Bar” — and the best I can do is “Headless Bodies on Witless Mars.” For without a hint of wit or humor, Carpenter proposes that ancient Martian spores or whatever are taking people over like evil spirits and causing them to make themselves up like Marilyn Manson (Marilyn Martian?) and commit these gruesome atrocities. Sure, there’s lots of opportunity to ogle these gruesome atrocities, if that’s your kinda thing, and of course our heroes will slaughter the Marilyns graphically for your enjoyment, but I just kept thinking that Ghosts of Mars is kinda like Final Fantasy, with less mumbo-jumbo and more Mars porn. Or Outland meets The Thing on Mars. Sure, all the blood compliments the steel-grey bulkheads very nicely, but that’s just not enough for me.

Another potentially interesting idea Carpenter puts forth: Mars is a matriarchy… but he uses that mostly to have all girls doing the ass-kicking and to tease the fanboys in the audience with the promise of some hot girl- on- girl action. (Don’t get excited — he drops that train of thought as soon as he raises it.)

It devolves into unintentionally funny crap sci-fi at the end, but Ghosts of Mars is little more than a heavy-metal music video. On Mars.

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