The year is 2176 and the planet Mars has been colonised after a breathable atmosphere was provided for the humans going to live there. It is a matriarchal society, and has been running fairly smoothly until now, when something has triggered a panic. Police Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) has been called up in front of a government committee to answer for her actions on a recent mission she had been sent on to retrieve a dangerous criminal, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), from a jail in a mining town. Needless to say, it did not go to plan...
By the time Ghosts of Mars was released, its co-writer (with Larry Sulkis) and director John Carpenter had been looking derivative in his works for a little too long for his fans' comfort. It was bad enough that he was effectively remaking Assault on Precinct 13 on Mars, but this was one of a few Mars-based flops to come out around this time and it did not help that this one's central idea was lifted almost completely from Quatermass and the Pit. However, for some there was a swagger to the antics on show here, and a confidence in telling old stories.
There are interesting things in this film, for example the Martian society run by women, meaning team leader Pam Grier is less than impressed that her troops include men, but these are largely thrown away long before the end. What we're offered up instead is some pretty standard action moves in the form of a Night of the Living Dead-inspired seige when the police finally arrive by train in the apparently deserted town. Although at first sight it appears as if there isn't anybody about, it's not long before they're bumping into folks at every turn.
These people fall into two categories, either those in a trancelike state which turns violent if they notice you, or those locked up. Williams is one of those, but wishes to turn the situation to his advantage knowing the cops have to release him from his cell eventually, whereupon he will seize his chances. He also has ne'erdowell companions looking for trouble, but they have not counted on the presence of a Los Angeles street gang - no wait, wrong film, they haven't counted on the miners reappearing after busying themselves over the ridge with mounting severed heads on poles.
If you're a Quatermass fan you'll be well aware of the reason for this, yes, it's our old friend possession: the miners have been overtaken by the spirits of the long dead Martian warriors. Or the ghosts of Mars, if you prefer. The trouble is, what could have been a straightforward action flick is sent in curiously artless directions when the characters seem so intent on acting stupidly. For example, the three criminals get themselves locked in a cell with Willams after falling over each other to greet him, and one chap in early stages possession is shot by a cop (Clea DuVall), thereby freeing his ghost to invade someone else. Stuff like that does little to cheer you, and while Carpenter is as efficient as always, at this stage his storytelling powers seemed to be deserting him. Music by Carpenter.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.