With genre offerings such as "Escape from New York", "The Thing", and "Halloween", the name John Carpenter was once synonymous with cutting-edge horror and science fiction filmmaking. Even his commercial failures from the Eighties managed to offer moviegoers a dose of the unusual and the unexpected, such as the sly attack on Reagonomics in "They Live", or the campy take on Chinese wu shu martial arts films, "Big Trouble in Little China". Unfortunately, since 1992's "Memoirs of an Invisible Man", it seems that Carpenter has been on a slow-but-steady slide into mediocrity, and his latest offering, "Ghosts of Mars" is representative of this decline. This time, Carpenter plagiarizes his own work with this half-hearted rehash of his seminal "Assault on Precinct 13"--if "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet" haven't killed off audience interest in movies about Mars, this one probably will.
Welcome to Mars, 2176 AD, which has become home to half-a-million human beings. A police detail led by a Helena (Pam Grier of "Jackie Brown") arrives in the mining town of Shining Canyon to take custody of convicted murderer Desolation Williams (Ice Cube of "Three Kings"). Unfortunately, upon their arrival, they find that everyone is dead, and their most obvious suspect, Williams, is still behind bars in the town's lockup. A survivor (Joanna Cassidy) is found, who tells of how the miners unwittingly unleashed an ancient evil while digging an abandoned tunnel. These 'ghosts of Mars' took control of the miners, who have subsequently killed everyone else.
Unfortunately, the possessed miners, under the leadership of Marilyn Manson-lookalike Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), are out to extinguish all human life from the planet, and they quickly turn their attention to Helena and her fellow officers, including Bashira Kincaid (Clea Duvall of "She's All That"), Jericho Butler (Jason Statham of "Snatch"), and Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge of "Species", who picked up the role after Courtney Love injured herself on the set). Surrounded by bloodthirsty killers, the only hope for survival is for the cops and a killer to work together...
If you have seen "Assault on Precinct 13", the similarities between "Ghosts of Mars" and Carpenter's earlier film are rather obvious. Like "Assault on Precinct 13", a cop forms an uneasy alliance with a convicted killer to defend against being overrun by superior numbers, finding temporary respite inside a police station while wave after wave of possessed miners hurl themselves at every nook and cranny, "Night of the Living Dead" style. Unfortunately, instead of creating the sense of claustrophobic suspense that made the earlier film a classic, Carpenter offers the audience a group of uninteresting characters who become involved in tired shoot-outs and spout idiotic one-liners. Furthermore, with the way the narrative unfolds via a flashback structure, it is difficult to really care about what happens since the outcome is already a given within the first few minutes of the film.
In the end, "Ghosts of Mars" will probably be remembered as (a) just another bad movie set on the red planet, (b) further proof that former horror-meister John Carpenter has lost his edge, or (c) both. Instead of wasting your time and money on this sci-fi/horror mess, head on down to your local video store and rent "Assault on Precinct 13" instead, in which John Carpenter does the same thing... only better.