John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars

"Damn, girl! I like you already."

I haven’t kept up with John Carpenter over the years. Previous to this, my experience with the notorious horror director has been limited to Halloween and the much-maligned (but not by me) 1995 remake of Village of the Damned. Now, after seeing John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, I think I’ll rent Starman this weekend. His latest is exactly what I’ve been missing: mindless, schlocky, well-made science fiction that entertains without condescending. Modern sci-fi tends to come in two varieties: thoughtful and lofty, or downright bad. Though I always welcome the former, it’s good to see someone subvert the trend of the latter.

There’s a difference between a simple plot and a stupid one. Carpenter’s is a no-brainer, but it’s executed with flair, talent, and few lapses in logic. It deals with a team of policemen in a distant-future Mars, who are sent by train to a secluded penitentiary to transport a prisoner – “Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) – back to civilization for trial. The film is framed so that we learn of the mission’s only survivor: Melanie Bradford (Natasha Henstridge). What follows is a story told by Bradford to a group of justices trying her for narcotics use.

Her team finds the prison all but abandoned; those who are left have, for the most part, been overrun by ghosts who possess their victims and control them, making them mutilate their bodies and stick weird things in their faces. Soon enough Melanie, her crew, and the few remaining prisoners (including Williams), barricade themselves in one of the prison buildings, to defend against the planet’s former inhabitants who have no plans to let humanity take over.

After the super-accelerated set-up, Carpenter goes into overdrive with pretty much one action sequence after another. These are almost indescribably chaotic, but so masterfully filmed that there is never question about what’s going on. There are scenes where just about every character is fighting in the same frame and everything remains clear and lucid. There’s a temptation to bash these kinds of movies; it’s hokum, yes, but what hokum.

I’ve liked Ice Cube since I saw him in Three Kings> — where he was the most likeable character – and he comes through as an action hero in Ghosts of Mars. He and Henstridge have an undeniable chemistry, and even though their enemies-who-must-depend-on-one-another-to-survive relationship is clichéd, I believed it. Henstridge herself had all but disappeared after her supposedly star-making turn in Species, and she returns to stardom in a role that I liked, even if it’s unlikely to earn her the right to ask for a $20 million paycheck.

I sat back, relaxed, and watched with an ever-present smile on my face. I had a good time. A.I. this isn’t, but it’s good, solid science fiction in the vein of the Alien series. But whatever its shortcomings, I refuse to give a grade lower than a B- to any movie that ends with the exchange: “Let’s go kick some ass.”/”That’s what we do best.”

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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