John Carpenter's Ghosts Of Mars

2001, Movie, PG-13, 98 mins


Combine NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), RIO BRAVO (1959, by way of Carpenter's own 1976 ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) and FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1968), sprinkle with red dust — voila! You have this low-rent fright flick. The year is 2176: Mars has been terraformed into a nasty but habitable desert, and some 640,000 colonists — mostly miners — live in a matriarchal society where tough cookies like leather-clad top cop Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) run the show. The story opens in the capitol city of Chryse: Officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) has been called before a tribunal to explain how she came to be the sole survivor of what should have been a routine mission to collect notorious killer James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube, in a role that would once have been played by Kurt Russell) from the local jail at Shining Valley mining outpost and bring him back for trial. Ballard was part of a team headed by Braddock; her teammates included high-strung rookie Bashira (Clea DuVall), relentless horn-dog Jericho (Jason Statham) and quiet but dependable Descanso (Liam Waite). But when they arrive at Shining Valley, the streets are deserted and the buildings crammed with headless corpses. They're tempted to blame Williams, but he's tightly locked up in a cell. Also among the inmates is Dr. Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), who only arrived the previous night but seems to know more than she's telling about whatever swept through Shining Valley. The cops eventually discover that the killers are zombified miners, who've been taken over by the "ghosts" of Mars' indigenous population. They've been transformed into pasty-faced ghouls with monsters-of-metal wardrobes, scary body piercings and sharpened teeth — in fact, en masse they resemble a Marilyn Manson lookalike convention — who won't stop killing until every last human colonist is dead. And now they're outside the fortified police station, hell-bent on getting in. One of the movie's first images is a flashing "Auto Pilot" sign, and that's how it seems to have been made. Bad enough that the plot is shopworn, but the tough-gal talk is unintentionally hilarious, and the complicated narrative structure is annoying and pointless: Not since THE HILLS HAVE EYES II (1985) have so many flashbacks been employed to so little effect. If this were "Bob Jones's Ghosts of Mars," it would have gone direct to video — the appropriate showcase for its cheesy charms. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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