Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Visiting and Revisiting: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001) Part 1

Welcome to the second edition of Visiting and Revisiting with Aaron Lowe (Working Dead Productions) and Rik Tod Johnson (The Cinema 4 Pylon). The focus of this column, intended to be a semi-regular feature on both our sites, is to review films that one of us has already seen, possibly even multiple times, but the other has somehow put off watching over the years. Sometimes we get surprised when one or the other has not seen a fairly well known film, so we felt this was a good way to not only give the film either a fresh or updated viewing, but also to allow us to discuss the film at length afterwards.

Aaron: I saw Ghosts of Mars in the theater in 2001, if not on opening weekend, it was pretty darn close. I was 23, and I loved John Carpenter. Despite a few films in the ‘90s that I chose to ignore, he had never really let me down. Vampires, his previous film, I had seen on opening night, and despite its less-than-stellar reputation, I really enjoyed it. The fact that I liked — but didn’t love — Ghosts of Mars was, I reasoned, a testament to Carpenter’s consistent history of ridiculously enjoyable genre fare. Its low ranking when compared to his previous efforts spoke not so much to Ghosts’ lack of quality, but to the fact that it’s hard to top yourself when your filmography contains Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, to name just the first three that pop into my head. For nearly a decade, Ghosts of Mars appeared to be Carpenter’s last theatrical film, which meant that I felt more defensive of it than I might otherwise. I had more than a few discussions where I came to the film’s defense, but arguments such as ‘sure, it’s not his best, but it’s more fun than you remember’ struck me even at the time as apologetic and noncommittal.

Ghosts of Mars begins on the red planet, with a ghost train arriving in the city of Chryse. The train’s sole passenger, police officer Natasha Henstridge, is unconscious and handcuffed, and there is no sign of the crew or her fellow officers. Brought before a tribunal, she recounts the story of how she was sent to the small mining colony of Shining Canyon to retrieve Desolation Williams, a particularly nasty outlaw accused of slaughtering dozens of civilians. What she and her fellow officers find is a ghost town, with everyone either dead or missing, and Williams (Ice Cube) still locked in his jail cell, while just over the hills, a band of resurrected Martian warriors readies themselves for battle. The majority of the film concerns the cops teaming up with the criminals to defend themselves against the titular ghosts of Mars.

The flashback structure used here, where the hero is discovered by people in authority and forced to tell their story while some larger threat grows outside, is one that Carpenter had previously used for In the Mouth of Madness, and that sort of self quoting is something he does a lot in this film. The film’s most obvious precedent is his own Assault on Precinct 13, which told a similar story of cops and criminals forced to cooperate in order to defend themselves against a common enemy massing outside. The score and editing seemed designed to quote his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ as well, most notably Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, while the isolated location and idea of being replaced by an alien intelligence recalls his classic The Thing. You mentioned in one of our discussions the connection to The Fog, which is his earlier film about a mist that brings violent ghosts with it. It’s such an obvious reference that I am utterly ashamed to have not noticed it all these years.

The one thing I’m most looking forward to with this entry of Visiting & Revisiting is that we’re both approaching this with different histories, but with a certain shared level of clarity; you, as a first time viewer, and I, without the rose colored glasses through which I first saw the film. If I’m being honest, the film has several glaring problems, but I still think it’s more fun than its reputation suggests, and is also clearly a film no one but John Carpenter could make, or at least no one else would make it in this way. That alone gives it some value in my mind, as I prefer the relative failure of this, which still feels like a Carpenter film, to the failure of The Ward, his first (and to this point only) theatrical production since. The Ward makes a good contrast, because it’s a competently made film, but completely devoid of anything you look for in a Carpenter film. The result felt lifeless and generic to me, which is not a comment that I believe can be made about Ghosts of Mars, despite what the title tells you.

I know you’ve only very recently seen this film, though I also know you’re a fan of Carpenter in general. Any reason for the fifteen-year wait?

Rik: Ghosts of Mars came out to theatres at a crucial time for me. I was still beat down from the previous two films from one of my favorite directors, John Carpenter. I had seen all of his films in theatres starting with The Fog in 1980 (I snuck in… too young to buy a ticket) through Vampires in 1998. Escape from L.A. (1996) had been the first cinematic beating I took from the Master (though frankly, I did not like previous film, his remake of Village of the Damned, all that much). I liked portions of Escape from L.A. well enough, and it was grand to see Snake Plissken back in action, but goddammit, that surfing scene is still absolutely horrible and murdered the overall picture for me to this day. Vampires came after I had seen so many better vampire films, I could not get into any of the characters, and I thought much of it was lazy filmmaking. Three years later, Ghosts of Mars comes out and I just look at the trailer and say, “Hmm… not today.” I thought Carpenter was just spinning his wheels, and had really sort of given up the ghost (without actually giving up the ghost).

I avoided Ghosts of Mars until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided that I should at least watch the one remaining film on his professional resume that I have not seen. After all, since Ghosts came out, Carpenter had shown there was still life in the old boy yet with a couple of episodes a full decade ago for the Masters of Horror television anthology, one which I thought was pretty good (Pro-Life) and one that I thought was amongst his best work (the more well-known and regarded Cigarette Burns). He also came back to theatres in 2010 with the aforementioned film, The Ward, which I liked a bit more than Aaron. I didn’t care if it was missing many prime Carpenter touchstones, chiefly because Amber Heard gives me serious Ward.

And so, one morning I popped in Ghosts of Mars, and while I did not like much of it, I did not hate it either. From the outset, it was pleasing to immediately fall into that sense you can only get from a Carpenter film, which has been my chief reason for sticking with him all these, well, decades. Carpenter is a filmmaker who sticks tight to his bag of tricks. Like De Palma, he is the sum of his early influences, but unlike De Palma, whose slavish devotion to Hitchcock is both his most charming component and his ultimate downfall, Carpenter is harder to pinpoint. Yes, he is admittedly and obviously a big Howard Hawks guy — and Ghosts of Mars’ referencing of Carpenter’s own Assault on Precinct 13 likewise registers new echoes of its forerunner, Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) — but Hawks himself was hard to hold to a set genre, and was comfortable adapting his fast-talking, tough guy style to anything thrown at him. Carpenter exists more in a specific genre, but is one of those filmmakers — whatever his influences — that has such a consistency of mood and tone to his overall oeuvre that it is hard to mistake most of his films for the work of another director. Cronenberg, Lynch, Maddin… they too have been able to do this, but except for Cronenberg’s last few films, their work has generally resided on the more extreme end of modern filmmaking (and in Maddin’s case, often the fringe), where a director can get away with this. Carpenter has been more of a Hollywood guy, and so the fact that even his most mainstream works still contain his undeniable essence behind the camera points to how strongly he has been able to brand his own style.

Aaron:  Yes, the film’s story is old hat for Carpenter, and many of the stylistic touches are as well, but there is one wrinkle in the film I really enjoy, and that is the film’s flashback structure. The entire movie is a flashback, but repeatedly the film bounces back even further as a new character is introduced and we learn their story. We also see the same events from different angles depending on which character we’re supposed to be focusing on in that instance. This isn’t exactly Rashomon, but I enjoy the way we get multiple perspectives all branching out from the main perspective of Natasha Henstridge recounting this story, and I enjoy the editing techniques he uses to differentiate which level of a flashback we’re in. The main timeline uses a lot of crossfades, as scenes fade directly into the next with no fade to white or black. Flashbacks are entered through use of one of those fades, while the flashbacks-within-flashbacks use various forms of screenwipes to transition between camera shots. The crossfade is something he uses a lot in normal scenes as well, as he uses it to cut out a lot of incremental movement. At first I thought this was Carpenter aping a then-popular technique, popularized by Robert Rodriguez in El Mariachi and Desperado, but listening to the commentary it seems like it was a choice Carpenter made in order to give the rather slow opening a sense of momentum. I have to admit, it does give a sense of creeping momentum to everything. I don’t think it entirely succeeds, but I believe it gives a sense of impending, continual danger. And as you said, it lends the film that distinctive Carpenter touch, as he’s always been a director that enjoys putting an ominous, pulsing score behind everything.

[To read part two of VIsiting and Revisiting: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, click here]

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