Rooted in tacky B-movie conventions, the best John Carpenter films walk a fine line between refined schlock and laughable cheese, riffing on the ridiculous without fully submitting to it. This sensibility benefits from the kind of handmade construction endemic to the low-budget moviemaking that defined most of his career, the accompanying air of ingenuity and resourcefulness helping to foreground and minimize the silliness. This fragile balance had already started waning as newly economical CG began to phase out the familiar utility of practical effects, a transition that may have provided the final blow to the director’s standing in the industry.

This change helps explain why Escape from New York works so well as steely-eyed pulp, where Escape from L.A. veers into ludicrous farce, the former rooted in a sordid, tactile world replete with larger-than-life villains, the biggest among them ensconced in a lumbering white limousine weighed down with chandeliers. The latter aims for something similar but comes off as completely weightless in comparison, marked by absurd surfing and hang-gliding set pieces, the digital backdrops expanding horizons but losing any sense of physicality in the process. It’s a style that has its admirers, and might have become a new artistic avenue if pushed further into impressionistic excess, but instead just looks clunky, awkward and cheap.

One of the better efforts from the director’s much-derided late period, Ghosts of Mars is another old-school outing bearing many characteristics familiar from his early work, but also suffering from the same sort of formal imbalance, only sporadically remedied by the use of miniatures and hordes of make-up-smeared extras. Originally conceived as the capper on an Escape From trilogy—Snake Plissken breaks out of the red planet—it was rehauled after the previous film’s poor reception, finding new life with Ice Cube cast as a rebranded felon named Desolation Williams. The resulting reframe splits the story between Cube’s charismatic convict and police officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), part of a crack unit sent to retrieve him from lock-up in a remote mining colony.

Their task is at once complicated by an outbreak of Martian-induced madness, which has left the outpost a veritable ghost town, it’s only residents having seemingly lost their minds. As cops and criminals are forced to team up, the film establishes an extended siege scenario that gains little from being conveyed entirely in flashback. This convoluted presentation, hinging on the needless device of a courtroom debriefing for Ballard, does little more than draw attention to the fact that she’s the only one to survive the mission. Tension is further sapped by a script that seems determined to vocalize every movement and immediately remove any mystery. This all leaves Ghosts of Mars feeling like a misbegotten counterpart to The Thing, a punchy potboiler that deftly avoided the issues of plot and pacing experienced here.

This comparison likely contributed to the critical lambasting the movie received upon release, but viewed nearly 20 years later, Ghosts of Mars isn’t without merits. Like other Carpenter works, its genre throwback DNA bears clear markers of Western ancestry, the closest analogue in this case being Rio Bravo, with the ethical alignment skewed a bit and most of the moralizing removed. The adversaries here, possessed by the restive souls of long-dead Martians, provide the sinister blank-slate Other normally occupied by Native Americans, a characterization that’s in this case complicated by the transported earthlings’ status as alien interlopers. It’s a dynamic that’s under-examined, to say the least, but which shares some qualities with a modern revisionist take like Bone Tomahawk, a film built around a similarly gory rendering of a showdown with inverted Native stereotypes amid a bleak, unforgiving frontier.

It’s no surprise that the colonial economic analysis is lacking, but where the film really frustrates is in the paltry glimpses it affords of Martian society circa 2176, a quasi-fascist satellite state managed by a matriarchal governing council. Men have apparently been pushed to the fringes of society, a state of affairs which has nonetheless not rendered horndog caveman cops like Jericho Butler (Jason Statham) extinct. The world that’s depicted seems to promise further development of the director’s running theme of women as sources of surprising, untapped reserves of power, but this unfortunately never comes to fruition. Equally wasted is Pam Grier as the squad’s tough-talking lesbian commander, who flirts with Ballard, then gets unceremoniously offed via offscreen decapitation after doing next to nothing.

Moments like these, while indicative of the film’s disappointing favoring of frenzied wall-to-wall action over atmosphere and character detail, serve as a reminder that unlike fellow genre enthusiast Quentin Tarantino, Carpenter is not a sensualist, but a workman defined above all by a nuts-and-bolts fastidiousness. This defining characteristic is ultimately what deprives Ghosts of Mars of texture and context, but it also keeps the film feeling at least somewhat sturdy, its action laid out with careful, clockwork intent. This persists even when depicting complete chaos, with battles scored to a cacophonous thrash metal soundtrack, which finds the director largely stepping back from his standard synth duties to let a roster of ‘80s guitar gods noodle assaultively over the combat.

The thudding musical accompaniment, like the shoddy CG shortcuts, both undermines Ghosts of Mars and enhances its status as a fascinating relic of action filmmaking at the dawn of the 21st century. It seems especially strange when viewed from a period where mid-tier properties like this have been largely relegated to the wasteland of direct-to-streaming purgatory. Even the minimal practical effects that appear seem out of place for a movie of this vintage, and CG would soon take over entirely, to the point where actors in big-budget tentpoles now work at its whim, performing isolated snatches of fight choreography, alone in a green-screened void. Considering how clinical and soulless cinematic sci-fi battles have now become, it’s refreshing to watch the schoolyard play of dozens of costumed troupers engaged in a chaotically staged rumble shot in a New Mexico ravine, in which the rocks had to apparently be doused with gallons of food coloring to achieve the proper crimson hue. The modern movie landscape, airtight and impossibly expensive, has left no room for a small-scale craftsman like Carpenter, a fact that has left it a much poorer place.

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