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John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars; 5 easy upgrades

A few excuses are made for the condition of Ghosts of Mars: the studio insisted on Ice Cube; evil Hollywood suits prevented Carpenter making his Escape from Mars; oh, and it was only ever meant to be silly fun.

Well, Ice Cube could be just fine, if he weren’t, once again, hemmed in by a walking body count, and given too little to do. Snake Plisken would have fared no better in these harsh Martian conditions. And silly fun doesn’t mean laziness, John. It takes skill to make a good B-movie, and you should know that more than anyone. Once again, it seems like you just didnt quite care enough to give the script a few more passes.

Let Statham be more than a sex pest

It’s plain irritating that Statham’s gravelly charisma is squandered in the part of Jericho, a creep forever drooling over his commanding officer. Still, you expect this to lead somewhere: after all, the opening titles inform us that this is a matriarchal society. Instead, apparently out of the same boredom we’re experiencing, Henstridge relents to Jericho’s advances in a storage cupboard.

It’s unclear what we’re meant to make of this. Carpenter seems to think it doesn’t matter. Well, if it doesn’t matter, give us some other reason to be interested in Jericho. Don’t waste our time with this creepy shit if it’s not going to lead somewhere. If we’re in this for the tropes, let him play the part of subordinate-trooper-who-comes-good-in-a-fight. This sleaze without consequence is a tedious distraction.

Make the matriarchy

So Mars is a matriarchy? Cool, sounds interesting. And what are you going to do with that, John? Well, he casts Pam Grier as the head of this police squad. Grier mentions early on that she’d rather have a “solid woman” on the team as opposed to Jericho. Women preside over Henstridge’s board of inquiry. Henstridge also gives the orders in the mining town fight.

Fine, fine…but there is little or no sense of the matriarchy actually manifesting on Mars. For God’s sake, apply it to the story somewhere! Why should a woman have unleashed the vengeful Mars ghosts? Shouldn’t that have been the work of some dim-witted, knuckle-dragging bloke?

Why are there men in Henstridge’s unit at all? Shouldn’t women police the men, so we can explore female authority butting against Cube’s male rebellion? Shouldn’t the mine be worked by men and overseen by women? Hell, shouldn’t this, most of all, help us actually

Feature spooky ghosts

One of the more interesting aspects of Ghosts of Mars is that it kind of invents Firefly’s Reevers: self mutilating space savages, bent on destruction for its own sake. It’s a great idea, but dreadfully realised. Weedon’s Reevers are spoken about more than seen, phantoms gnawing on the main character’s nerves. Ghosts gives its characters absolutely no space to be afraid of the Gho sts, so we’re not scared either.

Worse, it’s a huge missed opportunity to draw a link between the ghosts’ mindless savagery and the matriarchy. Why are there female ghosts at all? Make these sick freaks all men, as much an expression of unbottled male psychosis as ancient martian resentment. It doesn’t have to be laid on thick, but it might give our actors the chance to riff on the goods and bads of female rule.

If you’re gonna do drugs, do drugs

Another interesting, lost idea is Ghosts’ flirtation with illegal drugs. Henstridge is a drug addict, and it’s sort of implied that a dose of her favoured narcotic helps expel a ghost from her system, after she is possessed.

That seems like it could be kind of interesting, but it’s all very unclear. Another drug addled character machetes off his own thumb while intoxicated and that’s sort of…it. At one stage, you wonder if Ice Cube, Henstridge and all are going to have to get high, perhaps on some police station stash, in order to fight the ghosts effectively. That could be fun, right? But no, that would take another draft, so another idea is not followed through.

Dammit, John, lose the dead wood!

It’s a constant complaint with his later work, but this thing just heaves with useless characters: there is no room for Henstridge, Ice Cube, Statham, the ghosts AND an archeologist, four other prisoners, Ice Cube’s posse, and “the rookies”. These numbers could be halved at the start without affecting your thrash metal fight scenes, John. It might actually introduce a sense of peril to the mining town street brawl if fewer heroes were fighting more ghosts.

It’s not our expectations that sink Ghosts, as John has apparently claimed. You can set out to make a B movie, but you’d better be serious about it, and put some effort in, or no-one watching will have any fun at all.