Whilst re-watching John Carpenter (or Carpenter influenced) films over this last week, I sat down with the Indicator Blu-ray of Ghosts of Mars. I still like the film a lot - there's a lot slightly iffy about it too but that's outweighed by some of the unusual things going on elsewhere, mostly in its fantastic flashback structure involving the interrogation of Natasha Henstridge's apparent sole survivor of the events of the film.
None of the three 'Mars movies' of 2000-2001 (this, Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars and Red Planet) really work for me as a whole, but each have interesting elements. Mission To Mars feels the weakest because its trying to be serious whilst seemingly being unaware of how parodically goofy its being (other people have this problem with many of De Palma's other films, but I never really felt it as a detriment so keenly myself until this one, and a decade and a half later I'm trying to work out exactly why this film was my 'breaking point'!) I think with all these films I was wanting something in more of a serious colonisation vein in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson's works (or something like The Martian fifteen years later!), so wasn't particularly thrilled by the less 'hard sci-fi' tone of these films. Red Planet is perhaps the closest to being serious and middle of the road and perhaps succeeds the best because it does play everything straight (but that makes it a bit more forgettable too!). And Ghosts of Mars feels terrible as a film with anything to say about Mars or colonisation in particular (though there is that point made about going back to try and destroy the unleashed ghosts of the Martians because "its our planet now" and that "its about dominion", which feels strangely anticipatory of later real world regime change incursions into the Middle East. But its just as much about updating the western film trope of our 'civilised' heroes battling against the 'savages' for their land into a sci-fi setting), and that is because its another siege picture centred around a jail and an antiheroic 'bad guy hero' type who has to team up for survival with more flawed figures of law and order.
It was interesting to read in the booklet that originally this was apparently going to be another Snake Plissken 'Escape from...' film, but the failure of Escape from L.A. put paid to that. But Ice Cube as Desolation Williams here, and the film as a whole, is much more hampered by coming so closely on the heels of Pitch Black with Vin Diesel as another 'antiheroic killer in custody having to team up with flawed figures of law and order'. And unfortunately Pitch Black felt altogether more serious and exciting in handling its material with its winged razor tooth beasts compared to the rather silly looking band of growling Goths with their primitive piercings here (it could really be entirely interpreted as a fever dream of the anxieties that a heavy metal musician has towards goth types!). Both Pitch Black and Ghosts of Mars have that same almost futile structure too, of the band of survivors running for some kind of safety whilst steadily being whittled down. But it feels more upsetting to lose the characters in Pitch Black compared to most of the deaths in Ghosts of Mars coming in a bunch at the end almost as ironic gory punchlines to their characters (or with characters just disappearing as they get possessed, never to be seen or heard from again). I'm not sure that the approach Ghosts of Mars takes is wrong per se (there is something to be said for viewing the carnage with a wry sense of distanciation), but it suffers in comparison. Even in terms of set design, which never really feels 'convincing' in Ghosts of Mars.
Yet I kind of like that lack of believability too. I've always loved the shots of the model train here over the credits, and the location shots of the various cities surrounded by the barren landscape around it (especially those shots of the twinkling lights of the bookending 'first city of Mars', the unfortunately named Chryse, that promises a future battle of much larger proportions than this film can really provide! This bookending element and the flashback structure does keep lending the film the sense of being a prequel to something rather than a standalone film in its own right). Some shots look like matte paintings and hold up really well. Unfortunately the CGI hasn't really done the same, particularly the rather limp atomic bomb explosion climax.
And the fight scenes are rather limp, though I feel that plays into the sense of futility of the knowledge of there being only being one survivor left at the climax. But there is also a lot of redundant back and forthing that just seems pointless as anything more than a way to kill characters who have fulfilled their function off. Something like the whittling down of the various supporting members of the cast in the run for the bridge in Escape From New York was an earlier version of this type of sequence, but was much more impactful there (with only the camera and the audience mourning the loss of the character, as Plissken and the President have run on without a backwards look). Especially as it was a one way trip, not just an unsuccessful trip to the station only to end up back in the prison all over again. Though in some ways I find even that 'redundancy of action' in the film intriguing. Its even there at the very end, where a bunch of characters escape but the heroine stops the train because they need to go back and 'finish the ghosts off' in some ways (which itself causes the horror to spread even wider, into the capital city itself. Perhaps it is a premonition about interventionism and ghosts of the dead coming home to roost!), but is perhaps more because there are too many people still alive for the film to be allowed to end yet!
So why defend this film at all? John Carpenter has made many more successful siege pictures with more likeable casts of characters (Prince of Darkness, Assault on Precinct 13, the ending of The Fog, and so on). Its all about that fascinating flashback structure really in which our main character Lieutenant Ballard is being questioned about what happened during her mission to pick up a suspected killer, and known criminal, from an out of the way backwater outpost (I also wonder if this flashback structure was inspired by the pilot episode of the original Star Trek series, The Cage?). Ballard launches into a 'just the facts' recounting of everything that happened and the rest of a film is a visualisation of her testimony. Although its more than that, as we get events that other characters witnessed getting recounted by Ballard, and we see the narrative reset a little and then branch off in a different direction for a scene or two before it synchs back up with Ballard's own recollection. Then there are other characters who have their own flashbacks within that flashback such as Desolation finding all of the people he is accused of killing already dead and the cash he stole just lying around! Or most significantly Joanna Cassidy's great Whitlock character, who unleashed the ghosts at an even more distant mining town, escaped ahead of the ghostly winds in a hot air balloon(!) and landed at this station just before the horror reached there. So the one with all of the answers is already at a further remove from us, all their knowledge (and therefore potential hope for reversing what has happened) lost with just snippets of an explanation existing only in someone else's recollection of what they were told. Whitlock feels to be kind of an equivalent character to the priest who dies at the beginning of Prince of Darkness, and I think this is an interesting turn Carpenter made from his earlier films where you have Donald Pleasance's character in Halloween or the priest in The Fog segregated off in their own section of the film, tormented by their guilt and trying to warn and/or confront the evil - its still futile even there (they never stop anything, even if they briefly seem triumphant) but they're (in the) present and engaging at least. Later on (I think once Kurt Russell turns up in leading roles in Escape From New York and The Thing), Carpenter's dealing with situations that are at least one remove from the initial outbreak, which adds its own sense of futility and inability to change the cycle of events, just survive them. If that! As well as antiheroes who don't really give a damn about the bigger picture, just their specific goals! (That's even true of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and is one of the problems I find with that film, where that same sense of futility and lack of possible happy resolution to the main character's situation isn't quite as satisfying to see in an action comedy as it is in a horror film)
Then there's the final lie in the last scene. Is Ballard an unreliable narrator throughout? I guess she's mostly told the truth and this is just an (interesting) narrative device, but an even better film could maybe have played around a bit more around what might have actually happened and what might not have (it could have potentially been the melding of the western trope with the film noir trope that we've all been looking for!)
There is even a subjective drug trip sequence, which also turns out to be the salvation for the heroine after she gets possessed by one of the ghosts. The drug 'clears' her consciousness to such an extent that it expluses the alien consciousness too! Its perhaps one of the most audacious uses of drugs in modern film, as both an addiction but also a way of dealing with your demons through a kind of self loss! (The antithesis to a cold turkey scene?) Maybe in the action that follows the end of this film only those on recreational drugs will have any defence against an alternative, controlling mindset! (Or perhaps it was just a way of doing a nifty dream sequence and getting the heroine in a position to have a one-on-one fight with one of the monsters before getting back inside the compound!
There's lots of fascinating stuff here, less in terms of the story but in the little moments (such as the Mars society being matriarchal, which is thankfully relatively downplayed but ever present in the film, especially in the way that it seems that aside from Desolation Williams that the female characters are always the ones with the most agency here. And that makes Desolation into even more of an outsider figure, as he hasn't been 'tamed' by anything as yet) and the overall construction of the film itself. Just as impressive as the flashback structure is the very strange use of editing, from wipes to uses of multiple dissolves within a single shot (that seem to stand out as even more bizarre but interesting in a digital world where even straight lapse dissolves on the whole have seemed to have disappeared, taking the sense of meaning their layers of imagery fading into each other conveyed with them) that make everything in this recounting of events feel rather fuzzy and dream-like.
Oh and despite Ghosts of Mars coming off worse in comparison to the contemporaneous Pitch Black, Natasha Henstridge's main character here could almost be a prototype for Mila Jovovich's Alice character in the Resident Evil films to come a year or two afterwards. Even this story could fit into the Paul W.S. Anderson universe - a woman fights her way through waves of enemies, ends up victorious but alone in an even bigger situation that she has to work up the nerves of steel to fight against all over again at the end. The Resident Evil films took these kind of action tropes to such a point that it never really ends, and in some ways gets worse and worse on a bigger scale than ever before, and the heroine is in danger of losing her humanity in the process. On that note though I do think one of the arguably major flaws of Ghosts of Mars is that everything boils down to blasting away at possessed people with ever increasing amounts of weaponry, despite the very obvious cycle of the ghosts just leaving the dead body and jumping straight into another human host! Guns only make things worse, and the most worrying thing about the 'happy' ending is that none of the characters have recognised that. Or if they have they don't care. So guns and violent death in general in the face of far greater and intangible threats just keeps on perpetuating the cycle of violence!