Friday, January 22, 2016

John Carpenter, part XXVI: Death metal


Carpenter enters the 21st century with Ghosts of Mars, a picture that squanders an awful lot of imagination, and a not inconsiderable amount of narrative elegance, with a hoary scenario filled up with mostly-lousy action, and its predictable and justified failure nearly drove JC from filmmaking altogether.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter
With Natasha Henstridge (Lt. Melanie Ballard), Ice Cube (Desolation Williams), Pam Grier (Cmdr. Helena Braddock), Jason Statham (Sgt. Jericho), Clea Duvall (Bashira Kincaid), Liam Waite (Michael Descanso), Joanna Cassidy (Dr. Whitlock), and Richard Cetrone (Big Daddy Mars)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The unifying theme of John Carpenter's Late Period, it seems, is a certain novel kind of dumbness.  Of course, there had always been a charming, lowest common denominator, B-movie populism to Carpenter's films—a willingness to not sweat the small stuff, to be a little bit inconsistent, to have an alien Wilford Brimley attempt to build a flying saucer out of the parts of a broken helicopter.  Yet the screenplays Carpenter filmed were, every time, so much smarter than they appeared at first glance.  And if they weren't, then by God, Carpenter fixed them.  That's how JC's filmography abounds with works ranging from the subtly clever (like Big Trouble in Little China, Escape From New York, and Prince of Darkness) to the overtly brilliant (like The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness).  But then came Escape From L.A.; next came Vampires; and now we arrive at the last feature film Carpenter would make for very nearly a decade.  It began life as Escape From Mars, before L.A.'s failure nixed the idea of a Snake Plissken trilogy (though certain visual and conceptual elements remain noticeable, even in the reconstituted product).  While Ghosts of Mars is probably the most mindlessly-watchable of the three films Carpenter made before retiring, it is also built upon a grave foundational stupidity that would nevertheless ruin a much better movie than this one—and it isn't that good, even when you try your damnedest to simply ignore the joy-destruction of the plot hole that tears through the last hour of its runtime, swallowing up its poorly-handled sci-fi scenario bones and all.

So, let's talk about that scenario: a couple of centuries into the future, humans have colonized Mars and undertaken to terraform the Red Planet.  Lately, Mars' once-thin atmosphere has become fit for people to breathe; and I guess they did something about Mars' surface radiation levels, too, since they never once mention it.  The upshot is that the planet has become the new frontier, settled by civilization's discontents, and watched over by a heavily-militarized force of men (but mainly women, for Mars is hinted to be organized along outright oppressively matriarchal lines) who are not suggested to be much better.

It's in the Martian capital of Chryse that we find our heroine, Melanie Ballard, a Martian policewoman brought before an informal board of inquiry.  Questioned about the events that transpired during her recent mission to the mining colony of Shining Canyon, Ballard asks for a lawyer, but is refused—and the board notes that while she, the sole survivor, has sustained only superficial injuries, lab work does indicate the presence of illegal narcotics in her blood.  Given a direct order to give her report, Ballard reluctantly begins her tale.

And it behooves us to note sooner rather than later that Carpenter and Larry Sulkis' screenplay is one intriguingly-constructed thing, possessed of a curious rigor that immediately outruns its actual ambition.  Ruthlessly subordinated to Ballard's perspective, the film is almost entirely told in flashback, the only exceptions being the framing sequence of the inquiry—to which we frequently return—and the cute, apocalyptic stinger at the end.  Now, this isn't the interesting part, obviously—all sorts of movies are told in flashback.  No, the interesting part is how the story burrows into layer after recursive layer as Ballard's report to the board moves into hearsay.  Ghosts shows the story from other characters' perspectives—but limits them solely to what Ballard has been told (or, more accurately, what Ballard is telling her interrogators, and, by extension, us in the audience).  But the incredibly strange thing about Ghosts of Mars' script is what it ultimately does with its deeply mediated structure: very nearly nothing whatsoever.  Armed with a nearly infinite opportunity for misdirection, misperception and good old-fashioned spin, Ghosts takes advantage of its own testimonial conceit exactly once, and when it does, it's in the service of a minor, tactical twist.  Otherwise, Ballard's report is wholly accurate (or, if it isn't, it doesn't in any way matter), and the result is mildly stultifying: for we know upfront that everybody else in this movie is going to die—except, perhaps, for whoever chained Ballard up in the train that returned her to Chryse, and his identity and motives are never really in question.

Rashoman in Space it is not.

Anyway, Ballard begins her tale: a day ago, she was sent out with a team of four other cops—her superior officer, Braddock, who sexually harasses her because she's a lesbian, her immediate subordinate, Jericho, who sexually harasses her because he's straight, and two rookies, Kincaid and Bescanso, whose character traits of faintly sucking would've marked them for death even if the framing device hadn't already confirmed it.  Their mission: to retrieve the infamous outlaw Desolation Williams from his confinement at the Shining Canyon jail, and render him to the authorities in Chryse in order to stand trial for a spree of viciously ritualistic murders—headless bodies hung from the ceiling, that kind of thing.

Upon arrival in Shining Canyon, however, the team finds half the town dead, and their corpses mutilated in the exact same manner of Williams' alleged victims—while Williams himself is still safely imprisoned, not even aware of the carnage outside.  Indeed, the only inmate of the jail who is aware is a woman with her own story to tell, one Dr. Whitlock, who (in due course) explains all the strange phenomena stacking up around the befuddled cops; though, naturally, she doesn't quite manage to spill these beans until after Braddock's already gotten herself decapitated.  What happened to Shining Canyon was this: when the miners smashed their way into what turned out to be an ancient crypt, it awoke the disembodied spirits of Mars' aboriginal inhabitants.  Streaming out of their graves, the natives saw the humans who sought to make Mars their own, and disapproved of our colonial venture.  They possessed as many human bodies as their numbers permitted—and tore to pieces everybody else.  With this in mind, Ballard and Williams quickly come to an understanding.  Together, the cops and the crooks fight to survive.

Ghosts, then, is as direct a riff on "righteous cowboys fight savage Indians" as there ever was, punched up with a classic Carpenterian sleeping evil, and all the purer because it almost manages to strip the scenario of its real-world politics.  Of course, one stray line winds up reconnecting Ghosts' premise to its dour historical analogue—and not to the film's benefit, either, given that Ghosts is not interested in allegory, and its aboriginal Martians are barely one step up from zombies.  It's honestly baffling: if you intended to make a nasty-hearted racist Western with all the nasty-hearted racism taken out, why go out of your way to put it right back in?  Perhaps Carpenter was just savoring the irony—Ghosts was shot at an old gypsum mine in the sovereign pueblo of Zia, New Mexico, and its production began with a prayer led by tribal leaders who either hadn't read the script, or else were just really, really good sports about it.

That gypsum mine is something, though: Ghosts gives us an admirably crimson rendition of the Red Planet (with nice black skies), courtesy of production designer Bill Elliot, who built the medium-sized set in the middle of the mine, and then sloshed 100,000 gallons of red food coloring around until the white gypsum looked the proper Martian shade; of course, it never looks like anything more than a mid-budget set (and maybe not even "mid-budget"), but insofar as the goal was a 1950s-style B-movie with more violence, and also to make Shining Canyon look like an impoverished, austere place, we can spot Elliott his unadorned brutalism—even if a movie set on a terraformed Mars that nonetheless contents itself with what amounts to three or four drab rooms, and one underworked exterior, is bound to be a disappointment.

It's further worth noting that Ghosts was Carpenter's last collaboration with long-time cinematographer Garby Kibbe—and, for whatever it's worth, it's their best-looking collaboration since Village.  However, let's be clear: Ghosts is no return to form, and Kibbe is more blandly competent than artful (as with Elliott's impoverished design, it counts as a terrible missed opportunity, given the Martian setting).  Meanwhile, Carpenter and editor Paul Warschilka, apparently undertaking some manner of film school thesis project, keep leaning on an outright bizarre fetish for arbitrary dissolves—"jump-dissolves," if you will—apparently because Carpenter recognized this effect was the cinematic highlight of Vampires, without understanding why or how it worked.  Altogether, though, Ghosts is an okay-looking piece of pablum, which is why it's an incredible drag that its action content is, for the most part, drearily lackluster—similar to an episode of the 1960s Batman show, only with more blood and less wacky enjoyability.  Whatever amped-up flavor Ghosts actually does possess comes from Carpenter and Anthrax' metal score, which (to say something nice for change, however backhanded) represents Carpenter's all-time best deployment of rock music, while a more characteristic synth score effectively sets the mood in the quieter scenes.  That Ghosts' action quotient is so mediocre almost comes as a surprise when Carpenter has no less a figure than Jason Statham at his disposal.  But then, the other major thruline between Carpenter's Late Period vehicles is the turn toward the kind of big, broadsided action that, truthfully, he never mastered.

It wasn't a good look for him.

Which brings us back around to Ghosts' insuperable problem, alluded to above, which is that it's dumb as dirt, and absolutely refuses to have its characters engage with the body-snatching capabilities of the Martian spirits.  Even when a prospective cure to the Martian takeover is found (remember Ballard's drug problems?), it figures into the plot for the five minutes it takes to get Ballard clear of this hateful Thetan, and never comes up again.  Although the faintest lip-service is paid to the danger the wraiths pose, the typical scene involves our heroes fecklessly blowing out the Martians' host's brains and freeing the evil spirits within.  (Meanwhile, the Martians themselves do battle with no more intelligence than the Earthlings, inexplicably failing to simply body-snatch their way to victory, displaying this power only when the overdetermined plot allows them to.)

Thus, the best parts of the film necessarily remain entirely frontloaded: the sensation of grim mystery that the storytelling device and Carpenter's direction conjure up; the increasingly paranoid atmosphere (which is, insanely, abandoned totally once the film actually becomes body-snatcher horror); the interactions between the police and Williams; and the world-building.  In fact, Ghosts of Mars' Mars is pretty interesting (it's Carpenter's most complete fictional universe since Escape '81).  It might have been even better, if so much of the cops' throwaway dialogue were not also devoted to Jericho's clumsy-ass flirtations, which come off less as the attentions of an experienced lothario, and more as the pleadings of a pathetic virgin for sex.  (Oh, let's go there.  Statham is extraordinarily bad here: he might already be offering the clumsiest fisticuffs of his career, but the man's work isn't done until he's lowered every single line he utters into its lewdest possible register.  With nearly everyone else rising to the level of "serviceable"—and in the case of Ice Cube's Desolation Williams, legitimately effective—Statham's is easily the film's worst performance, unless you count Richard Cetrone's, whose Martian chieftain, at least, is more hilarious.  Saddled with a completely unworkable Martian tongue, he sounds exactly like a bigger, badder version of Beaker from the Muppets.)

Like L.A. and Vampires, Ghosts of Mars was a flop, and John Carpenter, who had spent half his career toying with the idea of leaving it all behind, finally did just that.  But this is not the end.  There were a few TV episodes left in Carpenter; and one more film, too.  Not many recognize it as a fitting swan song for the great director—but, you know, it's still better than this.

Score:  4/10


  1. I’ll give the film this, it’s closing scene is absolutely DELIGHTFUL - and one would honestly love to see a video game that picks up where this film leaves off (Since the big city setting offers more scope for visual splendour than a nowhere mining town, since the very nature of a video game would allow for some interesting comparisons between the eponymous entities and the average Video Game player, not to mention because a Planetary Capital is likely to host at least one brain willing to consider the possibility of NOT freeing the Alien Demon Zombies from their fleshy prisons as a default response).

    Probably an open sandbox sort of game, with Officer Ballard and ‘Desolation’ Jones as major NPCs whilst players make their own character and run them through a Survival Horror experience of a Chryse City survivor.

    Not sure what to call it: GHOSTS OF MARS - CITY OF THE DEAD?

    ‘DOME OF THE DEAD’ perhaps?

    1. I'll give it this much, it's not the worst of 2000-2001 infatuation with Mars, which is definitely Red Planet.