Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Some may know this movie because Anthrax collaborated on the soundtrack, but it deserves mention for holding its own not only as part of the John Carpenter oeuvre but in recognition of its difficult mixture of science fiction, mindless action, and absurdist comedy.

The story seems simple enough: something that the settlers on Mars in two centuries, now a mostly-terraformed colony, have encountered among the ruins of the past civilization there has possessed them and turned them into cannibalistic maniacs who can only be handled with excessive violence and possibly, psychoactive drugs.

Combining elements of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s vision of telepathic Martians, and a riff on Carpenter’s own Assault on the Precinct 13 (1975), Ghosts of Mars makes an entertaining film told mostly through flashbacks, built around the bewitching eyes and slightly aeronautical ears of Natasha Henstridge.

It even has moments of prescience, such as this immortal line: “Look, if we even get back to Chryse, those things will just keep coming. We’ve got a chance here. We got a chance to stop this thing before it goes any further. This is about one thing: dominion. It’s not their planet anymore.”

While some may theorize about this film to the point of boredom, it remains like most of Carpenter’s work a nuanced script delivered with the crudity of a sawed-off shotgun, and remains a thoroughly entertaining watch in which you can identify with the characters without having to moralize.

Thankfully low in CGI, it mostly features action scenes which showcase expert choreography which keeps melee fighting interesting and compelling, allowing the desperation of characters struggling with the unknown breathe and come into its own with an unforced, unnerving plot.

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62 thoughts on “Ghosts of Mars (2001)”

  1. Metalheim says:

    Help me, Brett! You once had a list up in IMDB of “movies to built a new civilization on” or something like that. I’ve lost the link!

      1. Fish says:

        Yeah, thanks.

      2. Horror says:

        Really?!? the Craft?

        1. Sem says:

          Dude they were so hot

        2. Yes, it’s a great movie about power and how to handle it. Ignore the surface, watch for character evolution. We should do a watching party where everyone logs on to Zoom and types sexual, racial, and aesthetic insults at each other while the movie plays in the background.

          1. HBDOMGWTFBBQ says:

            What if someone doesn’t have a ethnicelebs page? Also is that actually a thing? Here I thought Zoom was only for business meetings and mutual masturbation (which may, or may not happen at the same time).

          2. Q says:

            Not bad! Karmic stuff. Cool ending, though the cockiness was a tad unnecessary. I mean, she had just metaphorically overcome herself. (And the black girl’s sudden turn, where did that come from?)

            Must say, Fairuza Balk did a pretty good job here. All the more since Neve Campbell is about as expressive as a block of concrete.

            1. I think the ending took place a couple of days later when she accepted the fact that she was going to have to rule. Sort of like Lirio; she is a bit assertive and arrogant mainly because everyone around her is a toddler.

              Rochelle (Rachel True, technically a halfwitz: was a follower like Bonnie (Neve Campbell, a Catholic fake Jew: They formed a group of three, with Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk, the only real human: leading them, and then they encounter the “natural witch” Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney, of course played by a non-White: who they need but want to dominate (classic narcissistic co-dependent relationship like Christianity, democracy, middle management). When Bailey breaks from the group, they decide “I have the power” and that they do not need her so they try to kill her like the Romanovs or Seth Rich.

              I agree on Balk being the standout, but everyone else did a good job of being what they were. Tunney is a great ingenue, and Campbell a great PTSD victim. True handles being a follower well. Skeet Ulrich does a good job of being both innocent and menacing. Frickin’ Breckin Meyer provides the characterization of every high school bully’s helper that we need as a society. Lirio will always be my favorite character.

              This movie pairs nicely with Demian and Beneath the Wheel.

              1. Q says:

                When the two leftovers come crawling back, Sarah’s personality has developed to one that shows better judgment, that’s for sure. She’s a little too sadistic toward Nancy in an earlier scene, but maybe it’s the only language Nancy understands.

                It’s funny that none in the original trio seems to produce any magic at all without Sarah’s help, that it’s just pretend before she arrives. (At least until Nancy is given some power and the classic hubris theme is played out.)

                Breckin Meyer has such a punchable face in this movie. That’s inspired casting!

      3. Sem says:

        This movie is a classic. And this list is excellent. 10/10

      4. Pauly Shore, but gayer says:

        I was somewhat expecting more horror movies.

        1. I enjoy a good horror flick, but not many rise to the level of repeat watches. It is a rare Frankenstein that combines the physical, moral, and conceptual into a good story.

          1. T Malm says:

            Event Horizon

            1. …recently re-watched this here.

              There’s a lot to like.

              The Spielberg-style script? Fuck this.

              Conceptually? Interesting, although falls a bit short/flat on the theory.

              I would have preferred them focus on power and divine knowledge and how this corrupts the weak.

              Also, how the weak came to be in charge of a space-folding ship.

              If they let me edit this… I could have made it 3X the movie.

              1. Svmmoned says:

                “If they let me edit this… I could have made it 3X the movie.”

                I had the same thought after watching stupid and weak Prometheus.

                1. I have this thought after watching a lot of movies. It’s like people got so caught up in the project that they just wanted to get it done, then never looked over the final output. The curse of jobs.

                  1. i'd rather be watching skate vids says:

                    some point could probably be made here about the different sacrifices involved in creating art as opposed to entertainment, but even most of the greats still have to get paid. still it’s easier to realize a vision when it’s one guy and a block of marble or just a few guys with instruments. there are so many people involved in making a movie that it’s next to impossible to do something that really provokes or even holds up. i did recently watch one i liked called Visioneers. you might like it Brett.

            2. Svmmoned says:

              It’s promising, evocative, but overall very badly made and it really didn’t aged well.

              Psychological and symbolic aspects aside, it’s similar in concept and atmosphere to Doom games (and later, I suppose some of the Doom movies) where experiments with teleportation end up in hell. Both Doom and Event Horizon utilize the same idea as short story titled Approaching Centauri, published in Heavy Metal rag in the 70s. It’s about space traveller who enters hell where demons immediately tear him apart. Hell Awaits cover is a plagiarism of some of its artwork. Then, the Doom games got some of it already through Slayer, as they borrowed not only Slayer’s music, but also some of the imagery and hellish atmosphere.

              1. Interesting how the science-religion crossover peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, with zombies and helldemons.

          2. crilf says:

            recommendations for horror?

            1. CNN

              …oh, horror movies, not the dystopian hellscape evolving outside our windows.

              (giant cloud of marijuana smoke)

              My memory is…uh… hazy here, but of course Evil Dead, which I pair with High Noon and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the “lone scout” theme. Hellraiser gets regular watching here, but mostly for horror I watch the more analytical and lurid side of True Crime, you know, Zodiac and Forensic Files. Just finishes the EARONS documentary and concluded that Michelle McNamara was probably a personal disaster that surprised no one when she finally death rattled from a pill combination, and it sure was convenient that hubby Patton Oswalt took his time calling 911…

              1. Rabid Weasel says:

                I prefer The Return of The Living Dead (kinda related to the Romero movies, but not really) over the Bruce Campbell show… erm Evil Dead movies. It perfectly encapsulates human incompetence on all levels.

            2. The Man With No Name says:

              High Plains Drifter.

              1. Demon of Life says:

                I wanted to rape and kick the midget in the crotch.

          3. Fish says:

            What about Exorcist (1973)?

          4. T Malm says:

            Oh, and The Thing.

      5. Svmmoned says:

        No Conan and Excalibur? False.

        1. I have never seen them. My Milius favorites are Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn so far. Every time you kill a Communist, an angel gets its wings.

      6. Q says:

        Am I correct in assuming you view music as a profound artform, but movies more as sociopolitical illustration?

        If so, is this because you think movies as a medium simply isn’t able to bore as deeply as music, poetry etc.?

        1. Yes, because music like literature operates through symbolism, even more so than words, emulating the patterns of reality.

          This does not mean that some movies cannot be profound… most of them seem to be based on books however and are beyond the comprehension of much of the audience, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

          1. Q says:

            Which is important because patterns are the closest we will ever get to reality?

            1. I’m riffing off Schopenhauer here (big f’n surprise). Music resembles nerve impulses, or the responses we have to repeat events in life. We recognize sad music because the intervals and rhythms resemble how our nerves feel when something makes us sad. Arrange a bunch of these different sensation-tokens together, and you can tell a story. There may even be wisdom in it.

              1. Gaynerd says:

                Wouldn’t movies do the same through pacing and soundtrack.

                1. To a degree, yes, but it is one step removed.

                  The soundtrack is music. If it works on its own, and the visuals are synced to that like a basement pothead Pink Floyd turntable concert, then it takes the musical role and places it within a new context.

                  However, the significance of pacing relates to the story and visual impressions, so it is one step removed: you are not managing nerve impulses, or perception translated, but conscious thought, or analsis of what is perceived.

                  1. Gaynerd, now even gayer says:

                    So the answer is as always: drugs.

              2. Q says:

                I see, so music emulates something more structural, which we recognize in our most fundamental reactions to the world.

                How important is complexity? Should the structure be complex enough to represent the Cosmos, or is there virtue found in simpler, more direct expression?

                1. You may find this answer useless, but it depends on what is being expressed.

                  At the core of everything, there are a few big principles. Not One Big Idea, which is a human construct, but a few general things in semi-opposition, sort of like fingers in a cat’s cradle or ingredients and spices interacting in a (quality) soup.

                  Complexity as it exists in nature consists of very simple structures, repeating at different points — in tiers, plateaus, and cascades — such that the end result looks nothing like the core. Mozart is the ultimate expression of this.

                  Simplicity as it exists in nature seems to involve a contrast between two or more actors resolved by an expansion of context in which everything known means something new; not something unrealistic, like the ironists allege, but more depth or importance. Ildjarn is the ultimate expression of this.

                  Music emulates our nerve impulses, which in turn reflect reactions to the world that are shared among the audience for that music. For 115+ IQ Westerners, Black metal reflects how we see the world, or at least the good stuff does.

                  1. Q says:

                    I like that idea. Has me interpret simplicity as conflict developing into new perspectives of the old, complexity as pondering eternity.

                    Which I suppose means that the only thing we can learn are what the few big principles mean in relation to reach other – with simplicity and complexity deciding at what resolution.

                    1. Yes.

                      At some point there is the Answer: the Structure, the Pattern, and the Order of reality itself.

                      From that all unfolds.

                      It is not One Big Idea, but one big diorama of ideas.

  2. Pretentious Art School Reject says:

    Have you seen the Coffin Joe movies?, they are about a nietzschean outcast who terrorizes a brazillian town, i think you will like it

    1. This sounds interesting… on the list it goes. I will get to these sometime in the next couple decades!

  3. red bull says:

    Fun movie, although ice cube can’t act.

    Brett, have you listened to the new immolation?

    1. Ice Cube is like Sean Connery, Lawrence Fishburne, Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Morgan Freeman, or Harrison Ford: he’s the same guy in every movie, but we should up just to watch him be hammy. They are like the Lemmy of action movie people.

      I have not listened to the new Immolation. A few years ago, the material they were putting out then scarred me so much I was on HRT for three months.

      1. Walt Disney says:

        Reading “The Lemmy of action movie people” resulted in a spit take! I love what he did, but that’s a spot on goof.

        I had always wanted to see Motorhead live, but after some point there was a city ordinance about indoor decibels and he refused to turn the nobs down so the band would simply skip the show.

        The last time this happened they were touring with Morbid Angel of all bands. Must have been around 2002. Thinking back it might have been cooler that he did that than it would have been seeing them as the result of a stupid compromise.

        I still have the flyer somewhere – back from when those were printed, tended to look awesome, and were often pinned up in record shops.

        Apologies for that trip down memory lane, but I hadn’t heard anything about Lemmy for a while and thought I’d toss a piece of his legacy into this refreshingly aimless comment thread.

        1. Motorhead was always great live. Part of it was that uncompromising simplicity. The bands with too much stage show should take a hint from that.

  4. mlotek says:

    Ghosts of Mars (2001) was excellent horror-sci-fi-action, I must have watched it at least 50 times since its release.
    The soundtrack by Anthrax fits too, but whoever mixed it into the movie could have done a better job.

  5. Gene Shalit says:

    I’m not a big movie they/them/it/that, but I think “Seven” deserves an honorable mention. I get that the premise is cheesy, but holy shit was it written and portrayed in a riveting way.

    Also, watching this again I had forgotten that for some reason there was a constant rain storm happening in every thriller from the 90’s :)

    1. I tried watching it again, and was not as enamored of it as I was back in the 1980s or 1990s when it hit pavement, but it has some merits.

      1. Michael Jordan says:

        I agree that it’s not a masterpiece. Kind of a ripoff of Silence of the Lambs, which I think is also a bit overrated. Both films play the “this character? He’s just a psychotic genius” card to the nth degree.

        Nevertheless, it was a pleasant surprise to randomly revisit. Possibly because of the small cast, no woke bullshit, lack of CGI, and several legitimately badass scenes. Kinda similar to when an 80s speed metal track randomly gets played on the local bar’s jukebox: I wouldn’t have chosen to listen to it at home, but was pleasantly surprised that it came on.

        I recently had the same experience with “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

        So there you have it: the most long-winded and unnecessary explanation of revisiting cinema that kind of holds up over time ever written.

        1. I wasn’t blown away revisiting Silence of the Lambs either, despite having enjoyed it quite a bit. I agree about the “psychotic genius” trope, because I find myself thinking, “If these people were that fucking smart, they’d cure themselves of being tedious serial killers.”

          A lot of it seems to be mythos from the Zodiac, EAR-ONS, BTK, Green River Killer, and Ted Bundy era where there were forensically-aware and crafty killers roaming around offing people in order to keep the audience in terror. I wouldn’t want to dedicate my life to anything so tedious, although I would enjoy a vigorous eugenic cleansing that removed everyone under 120 IQ worldwide.

  6. Brown Oyster Cult says:

    Brett, I’m a little concerned that Tremors was not present on your IMDB list. Sure, there may be no vast meaning behind the film, but one must consider the importance of Reba McEntire attempting to down a aggressive Graboid using a pre-loaded flare gun when she had a wall of semi-automatic rifles available.

    1. Psychic Psych Toad says:

      Reba’s the only bangable broad in the whole damned movie!

    2. This was obviously an oversight. I think it’s a better movie than people recognize, and absolutely streamlined the horror movie script archetype.

  7. Chinaman says:

    I don’t know if you’re into foreign films Brett, but Ondskan (Evil) is a good movie about having courage in the face of conventions, oppressive bureaucracy and bullies.

    It has some pretty cool fight scenes more realistic than the usual Hollywood stuff. You can almost feel the pain of every punch yourself.

    1. Looks fun. Going to see if I can hunt down the book. I am good with any film so long as I can have subtitles!

  8. curio says:

    I highly recommend Network (1976).

    It’s issue was with TV propaganda then, which can be applied to social media today.

    1. Painfully Cute says:

      It could be applied to ‘all’ media.

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