[Screen It]

(2001) (Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube) (R)

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Sci-fi: Police officers and criminals of the future band together to battle various homicidal colonists on Mars who are possessed by some ancient Martian spirit.
It's Mars, 2176, and 640,000 people now live in various outposts on the red planet, working in several mining operations and nearing completion of making the air completely breathable. When a train arrives in the city of Chryse on autopilot with only one survivor and scores of bodies in its wake, a colonial council opens an investigation into what occurred.

Accordingly, police officer Lt. Melanie Ballard (NATASHA HENSTRIDGE) is questioned about how she became that sole survivor and she then recounts her tale. It seems that a police transfer team headed by Commander Helena Braddock (PAM GRIER) and consisting of Ballard, Jericho (JASON STATHAM), Bashira (CLEA DUVALL) and Descanso (LIAM WHITE), arrived in the mining town of Shining Station to transport a prisoner, James "Desolation" Williams (ICE CUBE), back to Chryse.

Upon arriving in the town, however, the team discovers the prisoners still locked up, but all of the guards missing and/or dead. They soon learn from one of the few sane survivors, Professor Whitlock (JOANNA CASSIDY), that most all of the colonists have been possessed by an unleashed, ancient Mars spirit and have gone mad, forming angry mobs that follow a crazed leader and kill anyone who doesn't fit in with them.

As they then battle the crazed and homicidal colonists and deal with Williams and a trio of criminals -- Uno (DUANE DAVIS), Dos (LOBO SEBASTIAN) and Tres (RODNEY GRANT) - who've arrived to spring him from jail, Ballard and the others do what they can to survive and get themselves out of the town before the hordes overtake and kill them.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Although it's widely known as the second most hospitable planet in our solar system and thus the target for future exploration and perhaps colonization, Mars is almost always given a bad rap when it comes to its portrayal in the movies.

It seems that either its denizens are jealous of Earthlings' better climate or are just plain mean and want to kill us all (as was the case in "War of the Worlds" and "Mars Attacks!") or the fourth rock from the sun is an inhospitable, less then enjoyable or simply dangerous place to visit, work and/or live.

The latter was apparent in films ranging from "Total Recall" to "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet," and now "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" can be added to that list. Unfortunately, it also joins the "illustrious" latter two films as recent examples of why no film should be set on the planet ever again, or at least until Wal-Mart, McDonalds and Starbucks have conquered the place.

Perhaps it's the simulated oxygen-deprived atmosphere or the reduced gravitational field, but filmmakers of recent seem to have lost control of their cognitive and storytelling abilities when dealing with Mars and that's certainly the case here.

Carpenter ("Halloween," "Starman") isn't predominantly known as a filmmaker who routinely pumps out Oscar-caliber films, although some of them have been decent considering what they're attempting to do and/or be. The apparent intent here seemingly was to make an entertaining "B" movie about a small group of cops and criminals who've banded together to battle hordes of colonists infected with an ancient Martian spirit. It causes the latter group to dress like a bunch of "Road Warrior" or "Waterworld" rejects and follow a roaring Marilyn Manson wannabe into battle where they slaughter anyone who doesn't belong.

A Merchant Ivory film this clearly isn't, and although I suppose it offers the potential to be enjoyable in its own right and on its own terms, most everything is bungled to such a degree that it's not entertaining on most any level. Of course, if you love watching and/or laughing at really bad films, this one offers plenty of opportunity to do just that, but unfortunately doesn't reach the vaulted level of camp to be fun in that regard.

While the plot - that simultaneously manages to rip off both "The Road Warrior" and "Aliens" - could have been engaging on at least a visceral level - simply from all of the fighting, fleeing and hiding -- Carpenter the writer and director manages to shortchange such material and thus prevents us from caring or worrying about the survivors.

The reasons for that are numerous. Despite all of the visual mayhem, the action, fights and stunts are rather boring and lacking in adrenaline pumping substance, none of which is helped by Carpenter the composer's lame score. The overall story itself isn't particularly interesting, and the specific particulars - such as the entire ghost bit - are barely explained or poorly and/or illogically done.

We know next to nothing about the spirits or why only one seems to migrate from a dead person to the next victim when scores of others are also killed after being infected. Such a migration would seem to offer an interesting complication - since killing an attacker would put others at risk of being infected - but the fact that great quantities of attackers are killed with no similar repercussions both undermines the potential and makes one question the ground rules that are at play.

Carpenter tells most of the story in flashback from the perspective of the lone survivor, but that's not particularly effective beyond our wondering in what order most everyone will die. In addition, the "current" story has no reason to exist unlike in films such as "Fried Green Tomatoes" or "Courage Under Fire" where the storyteller's life has a plot all of its own. This film could have jettisoned that entire bit with no further ill effect on the proceedings.

To make matters worse, the filmmaker has thrown in flashbacks within the main flashback to see other characters' perspectives (although that offers nothing substantial to the film or viewer) and also includes odd dissolves within many scenes (instead of jump cuts) where the "action" dissolves from one moment to the next that's only a few seconds after it. The effect is not only bizarre and distracting, but it's also completely pointless and ineffective.

Then there's the old fact about heroes and heroines only being as good - from a viewer interest standpoint - as the villains they face, and this film comes up pitifully short in that category. Not short in number, mind you, but in interesting characteristics or personalities. The only one here with a semblance of that is the head of the infected Martian colonists - never named in the film but possibly listed as Big Daddy Mars in the press kit.

While it states that character - if the correct one -- is played by Richard Cetrone, I would swear it's Brian Warner, a.k.a Marilyn Manson in full rock concert makeup and garb doing lots of stomping, sneering and roaring, of all things. Although the character is presumably supposed to be scary or at least menacing, the concept and execution of him is laughably bad.

The "heroic" characters don't fare much better, even when the twist of the film is supposed to be the teaming of the cops and criminals together to survive. Not only is that unoriginal, but the characters are so shallowly drawn, the acting is often so bad and the dialogue is ridiculous when not painfully awful, that the whole thing becomes a cinematic abomination.

Natasha Henstridge ("The Whole Nine Yards," "Species") plays the troubled cop with a drug addiction, but all of the swearing, shooting and moments of sweating and rolling her eyes back into her head while pretending to convulse don't make her character appealing or interesting. Ice Cube ("Three Kings," "Next Friday") appears as the good bad criminal, but he simply retreads the same characteristics he's used in other characters over the years (and borrows the rest from other such past cinematic creations).

Pam Grier ("Jackie Brown," "Foxy Brown), Clea Duvall ("Girl, Interrupted," "The Faculty") and Jason Statham ("Snatch," "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") also appear with various other performers, all of whom probably fought to have their characters killed off first so that the damage to their careers could be kept to a minimum.

Simply put, there's no reason on Earth, or Mars for that matter, for anyone to waste their time, money or energy in seeing this film in the theaters or once it's on video that - considering the likely viewer response to it - shouldn't be long in the coming. Deserving to be buried for an eternity beneath some barren, Martian landscape, "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed August 6, 2001 / Posted August 24, 2001

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