Ghosts of Mars Review

The Film
When I popped this disc in my DVD player my hopes weren’t high. Firstly the reviews weren’t that great to put it mildly. Secondly, Carpenter has been in a sad decline recently and it seems his best work is behind him. Finally this is a film about Mars and we know how bad those have been, Mission to Mars or Red Planet anyone? So I was preparing to write a disappointed review before I’d even switched the TV on which is rare for me.

Almost the entire story is told in flashback or in some cases flashback within a flashback. A group of cops are sent to transfer a prisoner from a Mars mining colony back to base for trial. Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) is meant to have decapitated several men and stolen a load of cash.

The cops turn up and discover the mining colony seemingly deserted (shades of Aliens). The colonists have been slaughtered and Williams is still in his cell. Further investigation shows that not everyone died. A lot of the miners have become possessed by some ghostly entities and are intent on killing anyone they find alive.

Soon all hell breaks loose and Ballard (Henstridge) has to take charge of the motley crew and attempt an escape. The rest of the film is a series of tense standoffs, explosive action sequences and a daring escape via a freight train.

The fact of the matter is that this film isn’t half bad. It could have been even better if it hadn’t fallen at quite so many hurdles. The main problem is that the film starts promisingly enough (barring some terrible dialogue); I was fairly gripped after 15 minutes, which was surprising given my initial misgivings. Then the film proceeds to gradually irritate you as the film goes on until by the end it is merely above average.

The main problem is the script; it needed a few more rewrites to remove some of the dodgy characterisations and motiveless actions. The sexual tension between Ballard and Jericho (Statham) is very badly handled to the point where her reaction later on to his advances makes no logical sense. Also there is a laughable approach made by Braddock (Grier) on Ballard near the beginning, which had me laughing out loud. The biggest fault in the film is also a huge spoiler. Let’s just say that at 1hr 20 mins into the movie the characters make the most unbelievable decision and from then on the rest of the film is an attractive mess.

As I already said, it isn’t all bad. The strongest thing about the film is its gore, horror and action. The set pieces look good and are executed pretty well. Tension is built up when the characters are holed up whilst deciding what to do next and there were plenty of moments where I jumped out of my seat. Also there are quite a few one-liners that help to lighten the mood. In places it does feel like John Carpenter’s greatest hits with elements of the Thing and Precinct 13, which is no bad thing. The film maybe a B-movie western in space but for a lot of the time it does it very well indeed.

In fact Carpenter should be congratulated as the direction is pretty much excellent throughout and it helps drag the script and plot out of the mire. He has not lost his eye for a shot and the pacing of the film is pretty strong throughout. The handling of major battle scenes wasn’t as good as it could have been but I have seen far worse.

The performances are patchy at best. Henstridge is surprisingly good in the lead role although her character does make quite a few dodgy decisions in the film. By way of contrast, Statham is wooden and pretty damned awful as Jericho and you’ll be wishing him a painful death within 20 minutes of the start. Ice Cube is surprisingly funny and tough as the convict Desolation Williams. The rest of the cast are badly underwritten to the point where they are no more than cannon fodder.

After all is said and done this film is slightly above average. It is an enjoyable B-movie romp in parts and an illogical mess in others. For the record I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is a lot better than Carpenter’s more recent efforts although not a patch on his earlier work.

The Disc(s)
This disc is billed as a special edition and for the most part it lives up to its promise. The menus are static but functional and easy to navigate. There are 28 chapter stops, which is good given the 98-minute running time

The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic, the original aspect ratio. The picture is variable but accomplished given the dark and dusty nature of the film. The print itself is clean and mostly free of flecks and speckles. The image is slightly grainy in places but this is probably due to the dusty nature of a lot of the scenes. The interior sections are excellent and sharp throughout with plenty of shadow detail, which is important in a predominantly dark film like this. The exterior scenes aren’t as sharp (again probably due to a dusty Mars landscape). There is artefacting in these scenes when dust blows across camera, it isn’t too noticeable but I imagine it will be a different story for those with projector set-ups. I have yet to see a DVD handle dust storm type shots very well and this one handles it about as well as any other I’ve seen. Please note there is also a fullscreen version of the film on disc, which is full frame rather than pan&scan, I gave it a cursory glance and it looked similar in quality to the OAR transfer.

The sound is very pleasing to the ear. The DD 5.1 track is vibrant and solid. It makes excellent use of the rears in the action scenes and the more atmospheric scenes early on. The sub is used very well in the action scenes and it is hard to fault this track. It isn’t quite reference quality but it is a good appropriate track

There definitely seems to be a sloppy attitude when it comes to extras of less successful movies like this one. There are three main featurettes that are very similar in style. There is a video diary which is 16-minutes of behind the scenes footage from the shoot in New Mexico. Then there is a 6-minute piece showing storyboard through to final shot footage of the visual FX. Finally there is a 6-minute piece on the recording of the music, which was of course composed by Carpenter. The music sequence is a treat for metal fans as Anthrax, Buckethead and Steve Vai all put in an appearance.

The main problem with these featurettes is that they seem directionless. It’s just a collection of behind the scenes footage with no voiceover or general flow. They are certainly better than the usual promotional guff put onto blockbuster discs but they could have been better. They obviously didn’t want to spend the money putting together a decent documentary based on this footage, which is a real shame.

The last extra is by far the best. Carpenter is one of the best DVD commentators around and here we have him paired with Natasha Henstridge. These two flirt and bitch at each other for the entire movie and it is hilarious. The anecdotes flow thick and fast, as do the insults (in jest of course). At times they go off on tangents leaving the movie behind and at other points they pass on some very interesting information about the shoot. This is a cracking commentary and Carpenter fans may want to get the disc just for this.

I know I said that the commentary was the last extra and to all intents and purposes it is. There are some filmographies on the disc, but I am so sick of these being quoted as extras I might stop mentioning them in reviews altogether.

The film is a mixed bag and I have difficulty in recommending it without reservation. It’s an enjoyable mindless B-movie, but it could have been one the best enjoyable B-movies if there weren’t so many stupid mistakes holding it back. The disc on the other hand is very impressive. The picture is very good (with only a couple of flaws) and the soundtrack is as good as I’ve heard in this type of movie. The featurette extras are a disappointment, but the commentary track easily makes up for that. If you are a Carpenter fan who has been disappointed by his recent form then this maybe worth a try. For the B-movie fans there are better examples of the genre out there but this one might provide you with a nights entertainment. I would say rent before you buy.

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