John Carpenter meets Big Daddy Mars
Hollywood may not appreciate mavericks, but real film fans do, and with that thought in mind, I welcomed John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars to my local movie house on August 24th, 2001. To state the matter succinctly, I didn't leave the theater disappointed - a feeling I had grown all-too-familiar with after screenings of Pearl Harbor, The Mummy Returns, Planet of the Apes, Tomb Raider, and just about every other major Hollywood release this summer. To the contrary, I felt invigorated by the film I had just seen, for Ghosts of Mars is nothing less than glorious entertainment, a celluloid tribute to individuality in an age when most entertainment is nothing but advertising hype, hot young bodies or an excuse to sell musical tie-ins. Sure the movie has flaws (like an anti-climactic final scene), yet I was strangely relieved to see that these were the flaws of one man's vision, not the flaws of a Hollywood committee or corporate second-guessing. Call me crazy, but I would rather experience one man's sense of artistic vision, with all of its inherent drawbacks and biases, than endure a project that has been re-cut to appease the teenage crowd, re-thought by studio experts, and mangled beyond recognition after multiple preview screenings. In a summer filled with the corpses of disastrous, big-budget entertainment, Ghosts of Mars - warts and all - feels pure.
The story of Ghosts of Mars reads like a western on acid. A team of cops (led by Pam Grier) hop a train to a frontier mining town in order to pick up the 22nd century equivalent of a bank robber, a disagreeable fellow by the unlikely sounding name of "Desolation" (rapper Ice Cube). But when the cops get to town, they discover that it has been overrun by native savages. No, not red skins, but by the former inhabitants of the red planet instead. And, judging by all the headless corpses laying about, it seems these ghosts are militaristic, and highly pissed off. Then the leader of the cops is killed, requiring one of her subordinates (Natasha Henstridge) to pick up the pieces and lead her cohorts through the traumatic encounter with the Martian "undead." The cops and the crook soon join forces to defend an Alamo-like structure and while they hold their ground, they also tackle "emotional" issues such as trust, drug addiction, the weight of command, and even, when Desolation's brother comes into the picture, family ties. The film's art design mirrors the plot: John Carpenter's Mars is Tombstone Arizona, but with a deep red tint.
What I admired most about Ghosts of Mars was John Carpenter's flights of narrative fancy. I love his decision to make the Mars society a male-bashing matriarchy, and his choice to structure the film deliriously as a flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback. Most importantly, Carpenter's transplant of core "western" genre concepts (right down to the frontier town's resident prostitute) into a futuristic setting is a lot of fun. Even a rudimentary study of this film reveals this is not the work of a director flying on automatic, but the efforts of a talent having wicked fun with his favorite toys and ideas. The opening act on a claustrophobic train is tense, recalling similar "tight" scenes in The Thing, and the film even boasts a lyrical passage that contrasts arid red Mars with the blue oceans of Earth.
Of course, I had to laugh at some of the film's carefully constructed cliches, particularly the all-purpose horror movie scientist played by Joanna Cassidy, who has equal knowledge of nuclear reactors, mining operations, and plant biology. But overall, I admired Carpenter's audacity and individuality in compiling all of his favorite western, adventure, and genre characters, qualities and cliches into one cohesive package. No one else in Hollywood could have made this particular movie this way. Ghosts of Mars is a one-of-a-kind.
But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that the movie looks and feels unlike its brethren in cineplexes this summer. John Carpenter has been bucking movie fads and trends throughout his career, and is responsible for such neo-classics as Dark Star (1975), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982), Escape from New York (1981), and Starman (1984). Carpenter is also the auteur of cult items such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988), all interesting, unique, even pioneering films in their own ways. That's certainly a track record to reckon with, but even Carpenter's staunchest acolytes would admit that the 1990s were a bad time for this talented director. The times changed, but his movies didn't. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Village of the Damned (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996) and Vampires (1998) all had vocal adherents but ultimately came up short in the important courts of public opinion and movie criticism. His latest film won't change any of that, or any mass perception of his work as a director, but John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is a riot nonetheless. It collides with the current pop culture conceits of American moviemaking like a runaway train, smashing them to debris.
Ghosts of Mars is a mad re-working of Zulu (1964), but its alien marauders replace African warriors, and the cops of the lesbian matriarchy sub for a fading British Empire. It's also a quasi-remake of the seminal Carpenter film, Assault on Precinct 13, which saw a convict and a cop team up to fight off a horde of faceless gang members called Street Thunder. In a summer of dull, cowardly remakes like Planet of the Apes and sanitized, politically-correct "history" films like Pearl Harbor, Carpenter's latest movie is also gleefully irreverent and gory to the max (with a number of lightning-fast decapitations). It also happens to be more suspenseful than just about any movie released this summer, short of the excellent The Others.
What differentiates Carpenter from the "talents" making movies today (and I use that term loosely) is that as a maverick he makes the movies he wants to see, not the movies he believes some 16 year old wants to see. He doesn't organize focus groups, take polls, or cast WB stars in his movies. He doesn't write by committee either. Instead, he relies on tried-and-true performers from his repertory company (such as Pam Grier and Peter Jason), and gets right into telling stories he finds interesting. Because of this quirky individualism, I suspect modern audiences won't quite understand Ghosts of Mars, the film tradition it comes from, or why Carpenter chose to make it. But then again, who cares? Audiences are fickle, and shelling out big dough for tripe like Rush Hour 2 and American Pie 2. If Carpenter were to emulate the style of such blockbusters, it would only mean that he is cashing in on in the shallow, instantly forgettable film work of 20 year old hacks. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take Ghosts of Mars just the way it is.
I suspect Carpenter doesn't give a flying #&"!@ about internet criticism, talk-backers, film critics, or even box office success. What he does care about, one senses, is consistency. That's why he is an artist in the best sense of that word. All of his films look, sound and feel consistent. There's the ubiquitous, Carpenter-composed pulse-pounding musical score (a major plus in Ghosts of Mars, by the way), the buddy-hero mentality (seen in Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, and Vampires), the anti-hero who disdains society (John Nada in They Live, Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, Jack Crow in Vampires, Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13, and Desolation in Ghosts of Mars). And, of course, there's always the isolated setting where protagonists must pull together to face the enemy, a reference to Carpenter's favorite "siege" movie, Rio Bravo. Whether it be a church in Prince of Darkness, a prison in Assault on Precinct 13, a ghost town in Vampires, a base in Antarctica in The Thing or a Martian settlement in Ghosts of Mars, it all reflects the same Western "Alamo" archetype. Even the "flawed" hero references Hawks' Rio Bravo. In that movie, Dean Martin character was an alcoholic, so it should come as no surprise that Lt. Ballard in Ghosts of Mars is the contemporary equivalent of a drunk: a pill-popping drug-addict.
Ghosts of Mars also features another recurring element of the Carpenter oeuvre: the dishonest authority figures. Here, it's the female-run council in city of Chryse, but in The Fog it was six capitalist co-conspirators. In Escape from New York it was the American President. It was yuppies and Republicans in They Live, and Cardinal Alba in Vampires. This all fits in with Carpenter's anti-authority bent, a characteristic especially on display in Escape from L.A. - a film which sends the world back to the dark ages to avoid giving a right-wing President of the United States a political victory...
Ghosts of Mars also makes good use of Carpenter's other favorite villain, "the wild bunch," a gang of antagonists who attack en mass, almost without thought. The Ghosts of Mars thus join other classic Carpenter villains such as Street Thunder in Assault, Blake's avengers in The Fog, the crazies in Escape from New York, the "possessed" street people in Prince of Darkness and the seven vampire masters of Vampires. In each case, the antagonist is actually an unstoppable wave of evil, able to be in several bodies simultaneously.
To some critics, who tire of Carpenter's commitment to the same ideas, this repetition of themes, characters and ideas indicates the filmmaker's lack of originality, but that is simply not the case. Is Martin Scorsese deemed unoriginal because so many of his films (Good Fellas, Casino, et al) include gangsters and star Robert De Niro? Howard Hawks re-made Rio Bravo twice (as Rio Lobo and El Dorado). Was he also unoriginal in his choices? How about Alfred Hitchcock, who retread some of the same "twisted" ground of Psycho in Frenzy? Or contrarily, have all these directors simply found a theme - a realm of consistency - that interests them?
In the years to come, when a film's opening weekend tally is not the most important factor in determining if a movie is deemed "good," directors such as Carpenter will be viewed in terms of their career, and how each work contrasted or complemented the others. Already it is rewarding to view how Ghosts of Mars adheres to the themes that have inspired Carpenter for a quarter-century. Ghosts of Mars will not be seen as a "rip-off" of The Thing or a "retread" of Assault on Precinct 13, as many have accused right out of the gate, but as yet another side of the familiar Carpenter ethos. In my book, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000), I wrote that Carpenter will be remembered for his willingness to buck "the cookie-cutter" trend of blockbuster filmmaking and his "fearless desire to be his own man." If anything, Ghosts of Mars reinforces that notion. You may love it, you may hate it, but every frame of it arrives straight from the imagination of John Carpenter. In an age of stupid blockbusters (like Godzilla, Armageddon, Planet of the Apes, Pearl Harborl), that imagination, that vision, is rare indeed.
And really, who but John Carpenter would have the audacity to name his villain "Big Daddy Mars?" and then make him up to look like the unholy love child of Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper?
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