Ghosts of Mars (2001)

It’s curious how a little distance can give us a new perspective on things.

When I first saw this, I dismissed it as one of John Carpenter’s long list of current missfires – better, by far, than his take on The Village of the Damned (a painful demonstration of how easily one could take great material and reduce it to nothing, if you couldn’t understand what made it great in the first place), but that wasn’t saying much.

Seeing it again, after more than a decade, it stands out as tense and well-made action film, with far more in common with Westerns – or Carpenter’s own Assault on Precinct 13 – than the horror film it appears to be on the surface.

It came out during the brief, post-millennial surge in movies about Mars, which included such films as Red Planet and Mission to Mars:  however, unlike them, it portrayed events much further in the future, after man had settled Mars and was well on his way towards terraforming it.

The most interesting social detail of his future is that Earth has become a Matriarchal society, with women fully in charge.  However, while this gets a few mentions in the beginning, it has very little effect on most of the film.

I still think that the film’s biggest flaw is Ice Cube as the film’s anti-hero lead, Desolation Williams.  While he has been cast as a tough guy in movie after movie, he never seems fit the part.  His face is too round and too chubby to look tough.  He may have appropriately monosyllabic “Man Without a Name”- style dialogue, but he never seems to have either the intensity or the suppressed anger that Clint Eastwood would have brought to the role.  Instead, he just looks pouty.

Sadly, the then-unknown Jason Statham was originally hired to play Williams, but the producers decided they wanted someone with star power.  Instead, he plays the sergeant with a cocky sort of charm and a hint of barely suppressed violence.  I suspect that he may be a far better actor than most people think – he certainly brings a lot of life to the part, enough that one can only regret the change.  It might have been enough to transform a good film into a classic.

But he does at least get his first screen kiss.

Even so, it is well worth watching, thanks to some solid acting and the distinctive and grungy design of the Martian mining town.

It’s just a pity it narrowly missed being something greater.



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