RogerBW's Blog

Ghosts of Mars 09 August 2022

2001 science fiction horror, dir. John Carpenter, Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube: IMDb / allmovie. It's just a routine prisoner transfer.

Yes, all right, this film was despised when it was released. And if you're expecting something on the order of The Thing part 2, well, you'll be disappointed. Carpenter mostly doesn't repeat his effects: this time he set out to make an over-the-top, at times even silly, SF horror film, and he succeeded, while (like good comedy) keeping it diegetically real: we can laugh at the ridiculousness of what's going on, but to the characters these are real problems and threats.

I think the weakest spot is actually Natasha Henstridge, mostly known at this point for Species (1995): she wasn't the first choice for the part, or even the fourth, but she also has very little to work with. Straightforward cop, occasional substance abuse but she can handle it, and that's pretty much her entire character. (It would have been interesting to see what Michelle Yeoh or Franka Potente, both of whom turned down this role might have done with it.)

I haven't seen Ice Cube in anything else; he was brought in to play Williams because the producers wanted more star power, displacing Jason Statham. He does a decent job here, as someone who could credibly be the vicious criminal everyone assumes he is, but who also tries to look after his people. Statham himself, for whom this was his fourth film (after two gangster pics with Guy Ritchie and one complete failure of an ethnicsploitation), is a great example of the sort of actor who knows they have a limited range and doesn't try to go outside it: here he's the horny lock-opening cop, and that's pretty much all you need to know about him and all you will ever learn.

There are several points at which I wonder whether either the script or the film was hastily edited down from a longer version: various plot elements are established but never seem to do anything, and others come out of nowhere. (For example, I think it's meant to be implied that Ballard is the only one who can fight off possession, because she's already used to fighting the hallucinations from her drug habit; but it's never made clear.) With another filmmaker I'd write that off to incompetence, but this is Carpenter; and in this very film we get possibly the best use I've seen of sideways motion as a narrative element, which starts off as the conventional left-to-right for advancing plot and right-to-left for retreat, but at a key moment crosses the line so that from the characters' point of view they're moving left to right and escaping, but from the viewers' they're moving right to left and retreating.

But also, you know, space train. And Pam Grier in a leather trenchcoat, even if she's very underused.

I especially love the first half of this, the gradual escalation of tension and accrual of clues which slowly reveal what's going on. That's pretty much my model for investigative horror RPGs too, and it's a story form that I generally enjoy. (All right, it's quite Aliens in places.) If things sag a little in the second half, at least it's not just a non-stop string of action sequences, and not a rehash of Assault on Precinct 13 either.

It's fun. It's not turn-off-your-brain mindlessness – I'm not sure Carpenter could do that, and there are some interesting ideas here even if they end up quite fragmentary – but it's not a complicated subtle film. It does what it sets out to do, and it does it very well.

If you want more of my witterings, you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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