After digging the sandy intrigue of Dune, my search for more dusty yet interplanetary action led me back to 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, a film that didn’t win many adherents on release, but actually plays better in 2021 than it did on original release. John Carpenter is, of course, a horror king, as the ongoing popularity of his Halloween franchise attests, and that’s partly what went wrong here; Ghosts of Mars is less a horror movie than an action/sci-fi hybrid, and that’s a genre which has become more popular since. For Carpenter fans, there’s the single location of The Thing, the B movie action tropes of Assault on Precinct 13, and the fun, anything-goes aesthetic of Big Trouble In Little China; it’s an effective greatest hits package.
The character names are a clue as to how seriously we’re meant to take this; Jericho Butler (Jason Statham) is a rock-hard interplanetary cop who arrives on a Martian mining settlement to assist Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) with a prisoner transfer. Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) is a familiar character in the Snake Plissken mode (the film was originally developed as an Escape from New York sequel) and won’t come quietly. But when the cops discover that the ghosts of Martian past have revived and are possessing the human inhabitants, cops and criminals alike have to put their differences aside to fight their way out and reach the cargo train that offers their only way back to civilisation.
Statham with hair is always a plus for any movie, but there’s also plenty to enjoy in Pam Grier cutting around in a full leather trench-coat, plus a salty turn from Blade Runner’s Joanna Cassidy as a smart prisoner who sees the potential attack coming. Like many of Carpenter’s films, this feels more like a Western, with the same emphasis on camaraderie, and the intense, personal stakes of the Old West, transplanted to space. The structure, with Ballard testifying in court, flashing back to the action, and then flashing back again as each character tells their story to her, is a little confusing, but pays off in a neat, crowd-pleasing ending.
The public didn’t get it, but Ghosts of Mars has a lot going for it; great action scenes, some cool tension, a wonderful score from Carpenter and and funny dialogue. ‘Maybe I’d sleep with you if you were the last man on earth,’ Ballard dryly rebukes Butler’s advances ‘But we’re not on earth’….Meanwhile… ‘This is NOT making me happy’ mutters Statham between clenched teeth as possessed Martians attack him in droves. Today, this film would be 90 per cent CGI, but Carpenter works wonders with the old-school production values. Despite flaws, Ghosts of Mars is a guilty pleasure, a hard-action cops vs space vampires epic that really deserves another spin for genre fans.