In his first review for 10ya, Eric Asmar returns to the schlocky sci-fi he enjoyed as a teenager and re-examines drug use tropes, heroines in underwear, and the genre hybrid that is the sci-fi western.
Logline: Ice Cube, Jackie Brown, and the chick from Species face off against ghosts IN SPACE.
A decade ago, I was 16 and living in suburban Northern California. I spent a lot of that summer at the movies. It was cheap, air-conditioned against the 90+ degree heat, and more importantly, I love movies. Summer 2001 was a bit surreal for cinema. Stevi dragged me kicking and screaming to Moulin Rouge (you can read Stevi’s marvelous re-review here), which I actually quite enjoyed. Pearl Harbor put the whole theater to sleep. AI polarized sci-fi geeks and Kubrickians, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch became the new Rocky Horror Picture Show.
My cinematic drug of choice at the time (hell, to this day) was bad sci-fi action horror. I’ve seen all 3 Underworld films in theaters. While I was only vaguely aware of John Carpenter’s work at the time, Ghosts of Mars was right up my alley. Natasha Henstridge? Check. All-star metal soundtrack? Check. Hellraiser-style self-mutilated zombies? Check.
I don’t very clearly recall my thoughts on the movie at the time. I remember really liking the demonic arts & crafts, as well as Big Daddy Mars (whom I was convinced was Glen Benton, the lead singer of Deicide, until the credits told me it was Richard Cetrone, the go-to stuntman for everything from 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up to The 300). Beyond that, my overall assessment was “meh.” It fulfilled the prerequisites, but not with the polish of Resident Evil or Dracula 2000. The soundtrack, despite featuring Steve Vai, Robert Finck and Antrax, was also forgettable.
When Marcus posted that this movie was up for review, I jumped on it. I hadn’t seen it since, and I couldn’t remember why exactly. I would quickly find out. After watching it again, this movie is crap. Many reviews refer to it as the “rock bottom” of John Carpenter’s career. The dialogue is awful. The acting is hollow, even for Ice Cube and Jason Statham. The Power Rangers had better fight choreography, and better sets. The ill-fitting costumes are oddly reminiscent of Babylon 5 and Seaquest DSV. The soundtrack (composed by Carpenter himself) is a waste of the hard rock talent employed to produce it. Cinematic devices are misused in ways I would expect from amateur filmmakers, but not from the illustrious John Carpenter. That being said, what I did find interesting the second time around was the breadth of different genre references that Carpenter manages to cram into the film. Obviously there are plenty of stock sci-fi and horror tropes, as well as references to Carpenter’s other films, namely Assault on Precinct 13. However, the film also borrows heavily from westerns, which I completely missed the first time I saw it.
The plot generally follows the “human science releases ancient evil at the ass-end of space” format introduced and perfected in the Aliens series. Natasha Henstridge’s Lieutenant Melanie Ballard is found alone train that returned to the Martian capital on autopilot. Having failed to complete her mission of transferring Ice Cube’s Desolation Williams, the most unconvincingly ruthless criminal on Mars, to justice, she recounts to her superiors a fantastic tale of trains, bad policework, and alien possession. They, of course, don’t believe her until (spoiler alert) the aliens overrun the capital at the end. Lieutenant Ballard is a low-budget Ripley, from nuking the aliens to getting caught in the same grey underwear right when the aliens come back.
The stock sci-fi plotline overlaps relatively well with the stock western one. You have the prerequisite mining town in the middle of nowhere, the new sheriff in town taking out the infamous bandit, the last train out of Dodge and cowboys holding their ground against hordes of Indians (more below). Unfortunately, Carpenter throws in some western film-style dialogue, which makes the bad script even more cringe-worthy.
A word on the film’s antagonists. While at first glance they come off as rather zombie-ish, they have much more in common with depictions of Native Americans in old westerns. They do engage in horrendous self-mutilation and sometimes dismember their enemies with their bare hands, but they clearly speak their own Martian language (thankfully not subtitled in English), make their own weapons, and follow the orders of Big Daddy Mars (which sounds more like a jazz musician or a film noir crime boss than a dude possessed by an ancient alien warrior). This breed of “space savage,” as well as the sci-fi/western fusion, was executed much more successfully the following year in Firefly and subsequently in Serenity. Though Joss Whedon’s ‘verse is much lighter in tone, the wild west elements are much better integrated. Furthermore, Firefly‘s Reavers are actually scary, even though most of their savagery takes place off-screen. 2000’s Pitch Black (a personal favorite) also did some sci-fi/western crossover, including the ghost town, the criminal on the loose and the drug-addicted sheriff, but sans savages.
The film, for all its awfulness, had the potential for some interesting genre-bending. Compelling themes like a matriarchal society and humans as the alien invaders are wasted on lesbian jokes and one-liners. With a different script and no Ice Cube, it might possibly have been slightly scary. While I doubt I will ever watch it again, it’s entertaining to see how the film inadvertently captures a lot of the state of Sci-Fi Cinema at the time. It came a year after the other Mars movies (Red Planet and Mission to Mars), a year before 28 Days Later and Resident Evil brought zombie movies back, and sadly at the peak of Ice Cube’s acting career. It also captures Jason Statham during the brief period he was famous in the UK but not yet in the US. It also makes me want to watch Pitch Black and Firefly again.
“Society: Matriarchal.” A crucial but often overlooked vital stat when visiting another planet.
Jason Statham looks downright babyfaced.
Oooh, Natasha Henstridge is a pill popper! That “clear” stuff is ruining the once proud Martian police.
Clea DuVall is so angsty.
Why do so many drugs in sci-fi have the same nondescript sedative/hallucinogenic effects? See also: Clarity in Minority Report.
Severed arms do not make Jason Statham happy
Dispatch officer be trippin!
This movie doesn’t seem to understand the proper use of flashbacks. Why are you recounting what happened on screen 30 seconds ago?
Ice Cube was supposed to be the star power of this movie?
When Ice Cube bites his lip, it’s badass. When Clea DuVall does it, its angsty and sexy.
Big Daddy Mars first appearance looks like a public access TV metal video. He also sounds like a deranged woodland creature.
Exposition from a scientist!
Alien ghosts can be freeze dried like sea monkeys, and they travel on the wind.
“When the tide is high, and the water’s rising”? What the hell is that supposed to mean?
Suddenly, she decides Jason Statham’s awful pick-up lines are charming?
The first person Clea DuVall shoots in the whole movie is the completely harmless possessed guy in the holding cell.
Ancient Martian civilization flashback!
Ancient Martians look like dolphins with arms and legs.
Designer drugs are highly effective against alien possession.
Big Daddy Mars is on fire!
Of course, the biologist knows how to make nuclear weapons from local materials.
This soundtrack sucks.
Ice Cube finally steps up. “Come on you mindless motherfuckers!”
Heroine in her underwear! Aliens reference!
The buddy-cop dialogue at the end is arguably the worst in the whole movie.