If this isn’t a record, it has to be close! After Ghosts of Mars fizzled at multiplexes in the summer of 2001, the folks at Columbia-Tristar (CTS) quickly announced release plans for the DVD. How quickly? Websites posted the news the Monday following the film’s Friday opening! That’s simply amazing, and while I can’t state for sure that it’s unprecedented, in all my years following the DVD biz, I can’t recall another title hitting the release pages quite so rapidly.
However, the commercial failure of Ghosts should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Two factors led one to believe it wouldn’t prosper. First, movies that relate to Mars rarely do much business. 1990’s Total Recall performed reasonably well, but over the last couple of years, movie studios visited that particular well with weak results. In 2000, both Mission to Mars and Red Planet totally flopped. How Ghosts got green-lit after their performance I don’t know.
Total disclosure: they filmed Ghosts before Planet hit screens, so the latter’s failure wasn’t a given. However, Ghosts suffered from another problems, since it was directed by John Carpenter. That meant two of the three Mars flicks were saddled with directors whose salad days are long in the past. At least Mission’s Brian De Palma scored with the first Mission: Impossible film in 1996; I can’t recall the last hit produced by Carpenter. Though movies like The Thing, Escape From New York, and Big Trouble in Little China have fairly strong cult followings, I don’t think any of them did particularly well at the box office. It’s possible that Carpenter’s only true smash was 1978’s seminal horror piece, Halloween, and he’s somehow coasted on its success for the last 23 years. I think 1984’s Starman did fairly well, but otherwise, he’s not generated much financial profit.
With such a track record, I honestly don’t know how Carpenter continues to get work. Maybe he films cheaply and his established fan base is significant enough that studios figure they’ll eventually recoup expenses via video. Maybe he knows some secrets about Hollywood bigwigs and gets jobs to keep quiet. Whatever the case may be, Carpenter seems like a pedestrian director at best, and Ghosts of Mars clearly demonstrates his weaknesses.
Ghosts takes us into the future. In 2025, Mars has been colonized and a matriarchal society runs the joint. Much of the movie progresses via flashback, as we find Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), the sole survivor of a prisoner transfer mission. She and others had to retrieve infamous criminal “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) and transport him, but no one else apparently made it out alive. Melanie tells her story in front of a tribunal, and we watch as the events unfold.
Basically she and the others got to the penal colony and found the entire area to be a ghost town - literally. They plod their way through the spooky surroundings before the villains ultimately appear. Essentially, some spirits from the planet have awoken. They float around until they decide to inhabit various bodies. As a result, the possessed folk end up looking like participants in a GWAR concert.
The crew fight the baddies, eventually with the aid of Williams and his cohorts. They run, they attack, they get messy. 98 minutes later, we end up right where we started, as the movie concludes with a cheap cliffhanger that clearly opens the door for sequels.
Wow, was that a case of wishful thinking! I suppose it’s possible a movie with an $8 million gross could have a second part, but it seems kind of doubtful. If Ghosts offered some artistic value, I might care, but overall, it felt like a pretty bland piece of work.
In many ways, Ghosts appeared like a rip-off of Aliens. Some of the plot elements looked like they were directly lifted from that classic, and the overall impression made the ghost-ridden folks come across a lot like the xenomorphs. However, Carpenter’s no James Cameron, and the action of Ghosts paled badly in comparison with its predecessor. A number of fight sequences occur, but they don’t go much of anywhere, and they left me cold.
In some ways, Ghosts dropped the ball due to missed opportunities. The concept of the matriarchal society set up some interesting prospects, but the film explored absolutely none of these. Carpenter seemed to think it was enough to flout the idea and leave it there; the follow-through was minimal at best.
It didn’t help that the characters and acting seemed weak. While a total babe, Henstridge can’t act. She made Melanie appear awfully flat and wooden. I enjoyed the scene in which she appeared in her underwear, but otherwise I didn’t care about her. In a weird way, Henstridge reminds me of Monica Potter, who reminds me of Julia Roberts. However, Henstridge doesn’t remind me of Roberts. It’s like a third generation copy; each generation loses quality so that the last one doesn’t resemble the original, though I must acknowledge that Henstridge looks much sexier than either Roberts or Potter.
None of the others fared much better. Cube was a surprisingly bland presence who mustered little authority or personality. The few noted actors in the cast did little to stand out from the crowd. Joanna Cassidy looked bored and out of place, while Pam Grier came across almost as blankly as Henstridge. In addition, “Big Daddy Mars” (Richard Cetrone) - the leader of the ghosties - resembled a buffed-out Marilyn Manson; couldn’t the filmmakers come out with more inspiration than some grotty Goth tones?
I guess not, as nothing about Ghosts of Mars showed any sign of spark or personality. To be fair, it wasn’t a totally unpleasant experience; Carpenter’s made worse films, such as the reprehensible Vampires. Nonetheless, Ghosts did seem awfully drab and dull. I made it through the movie without much trouble, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.
Ghosts of Mars appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. Once again the folks at CTS demonstrated their marvelous compression capabilities, for though Ghosts offered packed dual-layered disc - including both versions of the movie and all the extras - the film itself consistently looked excellent.
Sharpness seemed crisp and detailed. At no point during the film did I detect any signs of softness or fuzziness. Overall, the flick remained clear and distinct at all times. I saw no concerns related to jagged edges or moiré effects, and Ghosts also appeared to be free of edge enhancement. Print flaws caused no problems. I witnessed no evidence of grain, grit, speckles, or other issues during the film.
Due to the Martian setting, colors tended toward the reddish side of the spectrum, and the DVD replicated them well. The hues seemed nicely rich and warm, and they never demonstrated any problems related to bleeding, noise, or other concerns. The film lacked many bright or vibrant hues, but the colors remained solid nonetheless. Black levels also seemed deep and rich, while shadow detail came across as appropriately opaque but not excessively dark. Overall, Ghosts of Mars provided a very solid visual experience.
While the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Ghosts of Mars offered a few small concerns, it still seemed pretty positive across the board. All five speakers received a fair workout via the soundfield. At times the emphasis remained in the front, but both music and effects cropped up from all sides with surprising frequency. Carpenter’s cheesy score pounded from the rear as well as the normal spots in the front, and while the movie lacked a slew of active effects, the general atmosphere created by the mix seemed strong. At times this mix appeared strangely sterile, as it didn’t always feature a very involving and natural dimension, but it did improve as it progressed, and I generally thought it came across as rather engaging.
Audio quality also sounded good for the most part. Despite some obvious looping, speech consistently seemed natural and warm, with no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. The score displayed solid clarity and dynamics, though bass response could have been somewhat more distinct. Effects also showed clean highs and loud low-end, but the latter seemed a little boomy at times, and the former could appear slightly flat and indistinct. Overall, the track didn’t always pack the punch I’d expect, which dropped it to “B+” level. Still, it worked pretty well for the film, and since it improved as it went, I thought it merited that fairly positive mark.
Ghosts of Mars provides a decent roster of supplements, starting with an audio commentary from director John Carpenter and actor Natasha Henstridge. Carpenter fares nicely when paired with an actor, as his fun tracks with Kurt Russell consistently showed, and he also plays well with girls. Carpenter and Henstridge have an amusingly antagonistic tone during much of the piece, and this creates a good atmosphere that makes the commentary more compelling.
Actually, it’s an unusual track in that parts of it feel like an interview between Carpenter and Henstridge; he often asks her questions about the process. Both provide a fairly good level of information about the movie; we get some nitty-gritty details amidst the bantering. The piece doesn’t excel in that department, and folks who become irritated with tracks that go off-topic likely won’t enjoy this one; as was the case with the Carpenter/Russell commentary for Little China, Carpenter and Henstridge chat about their personal lives more than a few times. Personally, I enjoy this aspect of the track, as it makes it seem more natural. Overall, the commentary for Ghosts was reasonably informative but it excelled due to a nicely chatty tone.
A few other supplements appear as well. Most interesting of these is Red Desert Nights, a loose but compelling “video diary”. This 16-minute and 55-second program simply shows raw “behind the scenes” footage from the set. We see no film clips, and though some personnel make a few asides to the camera, there are no interviews. Instead, it’s all good old-fashioned material from the shoot.
While that factor makes the program fairly unstructured, it still seems quite watchable and useful. The emphasis is on fight sequences - especially those involving lots of extras - and it’s fun to see the choreography of these scenes. The show’s too short and loose to be great, but it’s a nice piece nonetheless.
In the same vein, we find Scoring Ghost of Mars, a six minute and 20 second program that looks at the recording sessions for the film’s music. In addition to composer Carpenter and studio personnel, we see musicians such as the band Anthrax and guitarists Steve Vai and Buckethead. The featurette follows the same format as “Desert Nights”; we watch shots from the studio without commentary of any sort.
Largely this consists of shots of the musicians playing the terrible head-banging music. I won’t slam Anthrax, for at least they did a cool version of “Bring the Noise” along with Public Enemy, but I’ve hated Vai’s unmusical style of playing for years, and nothing here changes my mind about him. As for Buckethead, his flailings are even less compelling, and with his stupid mask, he looks like a moron. No, I won’t purchase a copy of the Mars soundtrack any time soon. Despite my dislike of the music itself, “Scoring was a moderately interesting little piece.
A third video program offers Special Effects Deconstructions. Essentially this shows a variety of visual sequences as they go through different stages. They start with storyboards and build from there. As with the two featurettes on this DVD, no commentary of any sort appears; instead, the video footage comes with music from the film’s score. The snippets seem moderately interesting, but they really would have benefited from some narration to flesh out the material.
Lastly, Ghosts tosses in “Filmographies” for Carpenter as well as actors Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, and Pam Grier. It seems odd no trailer appears, but given how much other material shows up in addition to two versions of the movie, there simply may not have been enough space.
Ghosts of Mars isn’t the worst film John Carpenter’s directed, but it offers a tedious and unexciting piece. The movie usually doesn’t seem screamingly bad, but it lacks any form of spark or panache that would make it compelling. The DVD provides very good picture and sound, and the package also tosses in a few decent extras. In the end, Carpenter diehards may find something to like about Ghosts of Mars, but others should skip this tired clunker.