Ghosts Of Mars, Mission To Mars (2000, 2001)
Directed by: Brian De Palma, John Carpenter
Written by: Graham Yost, Jim Thomas, John Carpenter, John Thomas, Larry Sulkis
Starring: Connie Nelson, Don Cheadle, Gary Sinise, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Natasha Henstridge, Pam Grier, Tim Robbins
HCF GUILTY PLEASURES: MISSION TO MARS 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 109 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 2020, on the evening before the first manned mission to the planet Mars, astronauts Woody Blake and Jim McConnell say farewell to Luke Graham, who is the leader of the mission. Upon arrival, the team discover a crystalline formation within a mountain in the Cydonia region. Hearing a strange sound on their communications system, which they assume to be interference from their planetary rover, they are then attacked by a large whirlwind made of sand which kills them all except for Luke. After the vortex subsides, a large humanoid face is exposed. Luke manages to upload an emergency transmission and a second ship is hastily readied for a rescue mission, headed by Woody and Jim…..
While the second film on this double bill is unashamedly a B-movie and needs to really be treated as such, Mission To Mars is something else, a would-be Hollywood blockbuster with a big budget, major stars etc. It’s a glorious folly, a wonderfully strange and rather brave film that doesn’t really deliver what you might expect, but is very interesting and certainly attempts to be more intelligent than most other science-fiction films of the time. At times it’s somewhat poor, but on other occasions it’s quite magnificent and certainly isn’t a blot on director Brian De Palma’s CV, though it is often treated as such. It’s certainly better than the other Mars movie of 2000, the dull Red Planet, and even if you hate it, you have to admire its sheer cheek. It seems to blithely ignore commercial considerations, and its ambition cannot be faulted. In aiming for the stars, De Palma doesn’t quite reach them, but he fails with honour.
Mission To Mars was, believe it or not, inspired by a Disney theme park ride with the same name. It was originally planned as a medium budget film with Gore Verbinski, then not much of a name, at the helm, but Touchstone Pictures, sensing a hit, upgraded the budget and Verbinski, at the time not comfortable with such a big movie, left [though he would later make a certain three films about pirates based on another Disney ride], and De Palma took over. He seems to have instigated some script rewrites but when the film was almost completed, the studio, not really liking what they were seeing, cut the budget, meaning that the ending, which was intended to be an enormous spectacle, had to be cut down and rushed. The picture was something of a flop and received mostly poor reviews. De Palma was even nominated for a Golden Raspberry award, something I find very bizarre. Interestingly though it was a success in France, where the magazine cahiers du cinema named as the fourth best film of 2000. I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does prove once again how perceptive of cinema they are in France.
Mission To Mars begins with a long conversation between three astronauts, and I should say right away if you haven’t seen it, this film has an awful lot of chat and can be very slow at times. Is this automatically a flaw? I personally think the film could have done with a bit of tightening here and there but it looks great throughout and, though many disagree, the dialogue is also rather good in its comic book way. “Let’s light this candle” may sound corny, but it was actually said by Alan Shepard, the first American in space, just before lift-off. To me Mission To Mars looks and sounds very authentic, with even the scenes on Mars really looking like they were filmed on the red planet. The giant face that appears in the film was actually based on a photograph taken from one of the Viking missions in the 1970s, which revealed what appeared to be a face-like shape in the surface features. The special effects convince for the most part, and you can say all you want about the CG sandstorm that appears near the beginning [including the fact that it had not long been done better in The Mummy], but it wouldn’t automaticaly look any better now; in many ways CGI has not improved at all. in fact sometimes it’s got worse as more and more things are done digitally.
Said sandstorm scene, replete with a rather gruesome death for a ‘PG’ film, is the only thrill in the first third, and the film does drag for a while, but the performances are good [even if Gary Sinise wears some very odd eye makeup that makes him look like a drag queen] and De Palma’s usual cameraman Stephen H. Burum gives us some great camera moves which show us around the ship. Then a gas leak occurs, and for the next twenty minutes or so we are treated to a master class in sustained tension as things just get worse and worse. The special effects are superb, the editing is perfect and Ennio Morricone’s scoring, a simple synthesised beat with an organ that sometimes goes into full-blown orchestral emotion, perfectly backs up the action. This is De Palma working near his best, technically astounding, totally riveting and rather emotional. He also shows himself entirely comfortable in the world of special effects, never ignoring the human element and conveying a realistic sense of peril amongst all the spectacle.
It’s fair to say that after this the film never reaches those giddy heights again. There’s a considerable amount of suspense as the astronauts near the secret on Mars that will reveal everything, and a hugely entertaining performance from the underrated Don Cheadle to enjoy as Luke the survivor of the opening sequence, but the film refuses to give us the expected action climax. Then again, Mission To Mars often perversely refuses to show us what we might expect; for instance we don’t see any of the rockets taking off. Instead it gives us a potted evolution history and a possible explanation of our origins. The visuals alternate between being tacky and being rather cool, while the ideas are perhaps not as original as all that; Quatermass And The Pit offered up pretty much the same thing, and it seems that Prometheus, in turn, used the same basic concept. I love the ending anyway for its plain bizarreness and its ambition though I can’t stop wondering what the original conception would have been like.
Typically for De Palma, Mission To Mars echoes many other films while still being entirely its own movie. The Abyss and 2001: A Space Odyssey are two which especially came to mind when I last viewed the film. Now an especially criticised aspect of the picture is Morricone’s score, perhaps because it’s so different to the typical ‘sound’ of a film of this kind, but to me that just sums up the narrow-mindedness of some critics. The composer seems to emphasise the wonder and beauty of space and other worlds with some gorgeous pieces, while often using atypical instruments such as the electric guitar and the organ. His music for the final scenes is truly beautiful and uplifting. Maybe it’s a little corny, but some corn is good for you once in a while. There is a lot about this movie that doesn’t really work, but there are some very good things in it, it had ambition to spare, and I’m not sure I would want it any other way.
HCF GUILTY PLEASURES: GHOSTS OF MARS 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
It is the year 2176 and Mars has been colonized by a high-tech company which has been 84% terraformed, allowing humans to walk on the surface without wearing pressure suits. Melanie Ballard, a police officer, went on an expedition to a Mars mining camp to bring back a murderous prisoner called Desolation Williams, and returned with most of her companions dead. An inquest is held to find out what happened and Melanie tells her terrible story, a story in which she and her team found the camp a ghost town. It seems that the miners had discovered an underground doorway created by an ancient Martian civilization which, when opened, released disembodied spirits which possessed the miners……
Ghosts Of Mars is usually considered John Carpenter’s worst picture, a perfect example of how low a once-great filmmaker can sink. It’s a truly nonsensical film that is easy to pick apart, and yet I always enjoy watching it. In fact I prefer it, in terms of sheer entertainment, to at least three other Carpenter movies. It’s a classic ‘so bad it’s good’ film, a film you watch because it’s poor, and I would even go as far to say that its total illogicality gives it a certain edge. No, it’s not scary, but it does have a strange atmosphere, almost like that of a bad dream, which I find quite infectious. And even though it contrasts nicely with Mission To Mars in that it’s a ‘B’ picture through and through, it does have some curious elements which show Carpenter experimenting somewhat when he isn’t riffing on his own back catalogue….though of course he falls flat on his face.
Ghosts Of Mars had a slightly higher budget than usual for Carpenter even if the result still ended up looking like a relatively low budget production. Originally Courtney Love and Jason Statham were going to star as the two main lead characters Melanie Ballard and Desolation Williams, but Love had her foot ran over by her boyfriend’s ex-wife and Statham wasn’t considered a hot enough property at the time so was moved to a secondary role and replaced in the lead by Ice Cube. Filmed entirely at night with the main location being a gypsum mine near Albuquerque, New Mexico, it came in under budget as usual for a Carpenter film. Typically, he also composed the score and this time employed the services of various rock musicians including members of Guns N’ Roses, Anthrax and Steve Vai. Though not an outright flop, Ghosts Of Mars was received mostly with derision, something which was probably instrumental in Carpenter not making another full feature film for nine years.
The first thing that will probably strike a first-time viewer of this stupid but hard-to-dislike film is the odd way the story is told and the script by Carpenter and Larry Sulkis is structured. The picture opens with our heroine about to tell her story in a court, so we soon accept that the majority of what we will see is a flashback. The trouble is, is that the film keeps on flashing back to the court room at inopportune moments, usually ruining what little tension there is. Then, in the main part of the story, characters keep telling of what happened to them a while back and we are treated to more flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks as it were. It’s weird to see someone once a master of lean, economical storytelling do this kind of thing and he botches it, but then you also have things like random dissolves in the middle of some scenes, so maybe we should admire John here for indulging his ‘arty’, experimental side…….or maybe not.
The second thing that soon becomes apparent is how much it copies earlier Carpenter works. There are echoes of Escape From New York and The Thing, but more than anything else the film comes across as a semi-remake of Assault On Precinct 13, with the relationship between the two leads being almost exactly like the relationship between Napoleon Wilson the death-row inmate and Ethan Bishop the law-enforcement official in the earlier movie. Sadly all this just constantly reminds of how much better a filmmaker Carpenter was in the old days, though what with the copying of classic westerns like Rio Bravo, the film actually comes across much better if you just think of it as an updated western. Ghosts Of Mars is also saddled with lots of comical hard-boiled dialogue delivered by a cast who, except for Jason Statham who realises exactly what kind of film he’s in, take it absurdly seriously. It’s a cast to die for though, so you could almost say so what that Pam Grier’s character is yet another lesbian who is patronisingly introduced by giving the ‘come on’ to another woman, or that Henstridge’s heroine, after fighting off Statham’s ‘offers’ for an hour, gives in like all good Hollywood heroines should. Joanna Cassidy doesn’t appear to have aged a day since Blade Runner.
Much of the first half involves good old wondering around corridors though Carpenter is still able to demonstrate his ability to perfectly time a shock with some decent ‘jumps’ as possessed folk suddenly move into the frame. There’s lots of point of view shots of the alien ‘spirits’ moving around and some hilariously inept action scenes with badly done stunts and blows that clearly miss their targets. The pumped-up heavy metal guitar music gives the sequences some manic energy and certainly adds to the fun factor. You may wonder why all the possessed miners have the same Goth/Punk look as Carpenter’s Vampires, and may also sit there aghast at some gob-smacking bits of writing, such as a bit where Melanie is possessed and decides to take the drug she seems to periodically take, hoping it will [somehow] flush out the evil inside her. She has a brief flashback to what seems like the ancient Martian civilisation, than the misty nastiness exits out of her mouth and she is fine! In that case I know what to do when I next have an infection; I’ll just smoke a joint and I’ll be right as rain.
Ghosts of Mars is quite a gory film though the decapitations etc. are mostly of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them type. Overall it doesn’t exhibit much imagination in its look except for one scene in a room full of dead bodies which is lit with Mario Bava-style hues. It shows laziness all-round. At the beginning, a point is made of stating that the film takes place in a matriarchal society, but it has no bearing on the rest of the film, a good summing-up of the attitude that makes up the whole film. And yet a bit of me wonders if this is actually a not-exactly misunderstood but maybe the most purely personal picture Carpenter ever made, and how can you not like a film which finishes with the lines:
Let’s go kick some ass
[reply] It’s what we do best