Continuing the process of six degrees of separation utilised yesterday, we're gonna look at another relatively unsung (and, in this case, somewhat misunderstood) film from the ever reliable John Carpenter. As those familiar with the director will be well aware, J.C. is a huge western fan, effectively remaking Rio Bravo with his masterful sophomore feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) - itself, like today's title, also arguably a borderline horror flick - and with Ghosts of Mars he uses a similar formula, but this time by way of (for want of a better comparison) Aliens, with a bit of possession thrown in for good measure. I wouldn't say it's one of his best films, but it's certainly a damn sight more interesting than most B-movie fodder, thanks to, among other things, its genre hybridising and a revisionist attitude to gender roles.
Set in the none-too-distant future, on a predominantly matriarchal and mostly terraformed Mars, the film follows (via a slightly byzantine flashback structure that makes the story seem initially more complicated than it actually is) Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who is, when we first encounter her, the lone (and handcuffed) passenger of a train that's recently arrived in the Martian city of Chryse, minus the rest of her team and the prisoner they were meant to be transporting. To appease her understandably irked and confused superiors, she recounts her recollection of the events that led her here.
In a nutshell, her story concerns the transfer of a notorious felon, James 'Desolation' Williams (Ice Cube), that goes horribly awry due the remote mining town they travel to having been assimilated and colonised by a free-floating, sentient cloud of insanity, that possesses anyone it encounters and transforms them into self-mutilating, uber-Gothic, tribal savages, who rally behind their leader, the wonderfully named, Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone). Unable to rely purely on her colleagues, a few of whom seem mainly intent on trying to get her into bed (the early scene between Henstridge and Pam Grier, who plays her Commander, is a hoot), and others who eventually prove to be fodder for the possessed masses, Ballard is eventually forced into an uneasy alliance with Williams and his Hispanic entourage, consisting of the imaginatively named Uno (Duane Davis), Dos (Lobo Sebastian) and Tres (Rodney A. Grant).
For those attuned to its often subtle sense of humour (a familiarity with Carpenter's back catalogue obviously helps here) it's quite a fun little romp. Unfortunately, some potentially interesting threads are dropped along the way, such as the whole lesbian thing, although in hindsight I suppose this makes sense, seeing as Ballard rejects Commander Braddock's proposition early in the film (informing her that she's "straight as they come"); plus, the latter is soon killed and therefore no longer around to hit on her (Jason Statham soon moves in to exploit this newly discovered niche). Like a few of Carpenter's earlier films (Big Trouble in Little China and They Live both spring to mind), Ghosts of Mars also contains a refreshingly ambivalent attitude to drugs (reflecting the director's own thoughts on the subject, according to the DVD commentary). For example, Ballard's own chosen narcotic helps to drive out the demons when she's later possessed. On the flip side however, one of Cube's buddies cuts his thumb off after inhaling some kind of nitrous variant and attempting to display his chopping prowess to one of the ladies.
The movie's other merits include some wonderfully moody, rust-red lit, Martian landscapes and shadow streaked interiors from D.O.P. Gary Kibbe (who also shot yesterday's In the Mouth of Madness and many other Carpenter titles), a generally competent and engaging ensemble cast including (in relatively peripheral roles) Clea DuVall, Blade Runner's Joanna Cassidy, Carpenter regular Peter Jason and Revenge of the Nerds' Robert Carradine, and a pumping heavy metal soundtrack, featuring the likes of Anthrax, Buckethead and Steve Vai.
I'll admit that it took me a couple of viewings to properly get into this film and appreciate where it's coming from, so to speak; the same can be said for other initially misunderstood and now loved Carpenter movies such as Big Trouble in Little China. But the more I watch this one, the more it seems to exude a wonderfully nonchalant, too cool for school attitude, perhaps best summed up by the final shot of the film where (and this isn't really giving anything away) Ice Cube breaks the fourth wall and looks straight into the camera; he doesn't seem to literally have his tongue in his cheek at the time, but figuratively speaking, he almost certainly does.