John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" is arguably the horror/sci-fi director's most routine movie.
Although Carpenter is sometimes schlocky, sometimes over the top, the maker of "Halloween" and "Escape From New York," among many others, can usually be counted on to generate plenty of thrills and chills in high-energy fashion. But Carpenter's heart doesn't seem to be in this lackluster space adventure set in 2176. What's more, his stars--Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube--don't exactly energize the proceedings.
Henstridge is a sullen, hard-edged blond lieutenant on the Mars Police Force who's marking time before being able to return to the Earth, even though the Red Planet has been colonized because of overpopulation back home. When she is introduced, she is facing the Inquisitor (Rosemary Forsyth), explaining how she happened to arrive back at the capital of Chryse, alone and unconscious on an otherwise empty train.
Henstridge's Melanie Ballard is part of a prisoner transfer squad led by Cmdr. Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) taking a train to the distant mining community of Shining Canyon, site of a prison from which they are to transport back to the capital the most dangerous criminal on Mars, surly James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube).
When the squad arrives, it is confronted by an array of strung-up corpses. Apparently, only the prisoners are still alive, still in their cells. It seems that Professor Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), an archeologist, having discovered what looks to be the entrance to a subterranean tomb, has led an expedition that literally raises the dead, unleashing hordes of Martian ghouls who take over the bodies of humans they regard as invaders. In the face of so overwhelming a threat, the line dividing police and criminals fades in the common struggle to survive.
None of this is very compelling or persuasive, and Henstridge and Ice Cube are required primarily to be sullen and surly, respectively. Carpenter is skilled at allegory but doesn't make much of the fact that Mars is under female rule or that Shining Valley's prison population seems disproportionately African American and Latino, just as that population is on Earth in 2001.
Making the most of what must have been a modest budget, production designer William Elliott has evoked a sense of dark desolation amid stark, monumental industrial-institutional structures, and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe has been imaginative in his use of light and shadow to create a mood of foreboding (which also helps sets look more costly and convincing).
Indeed, the film does have the sense of scale of some of Carpenter's previous futuristic adventures, but it unfortunately has few other pluses. Grier is always welcome, and veteran Doug McGrath has a vivid sequence as a hapless prisoner being overtaken by a Martian spirit.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence/gore, language and some drug content. Times guidelines: The violence and gore are too grisly for small children but not excessive for the genre.
'John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars'
Ice Cube James: "Desolation" Williams
Natasha Henstridge: Lt. Melanie Ballard
Jason Statham: Jericho Butler
Clea Duvall: Bashira Kincaid
Joanna Cassidy: Professor Whitlock
A Screen Gems presentation of a Storm King production. Director John Carpenter. Producer Sandy King. Screenplay by Larry Sulkis and Carpenter. Cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe. Editor Paul Warschilka. Music Carpenter. Costumes Robin Michel Bush. Production designer William Elliott. Set designers John Leimanis. Bruce West, Mick Cukurs, Hugo Santiago. Set decorator Ronald Reiss. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.