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Why John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars Is Awesome

October 31, 2023 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Ghosts of Mars Image Credit: Sony Pictures

Authors note: I originally wrote this as an issue of The Gratuitous B-Movie Column way back in late November, 2017 (it was part of issue #437 of The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, to be exact). Unfortunately, that particular article no longer exists on the internets, so I’ve decided to rework the main part of that issue and make it its own thing because I thought the article was pretty good and I really, truly believe it (it also helps that it’s Halloween season, Ghosts of Mars has some horror elements mixed in with its sci-fi action movie premise, and Ghosts of Mars director John Carpenter is back directing an episode of some weird show on Peacock called Suburban Screams. I believe the Carpenter directed episode is the third one). I also did a thing last year about Carpenter’s movie before Ghosts of Mars, Vampires (you can check that out here) and a thing on Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (you can check that out here). I guess, in a way, it’s just time for this kind of thing. Anyway, I hope you like it.

Image Credit: Sony Pictures

Intro: Ghosts of Mars is, to date, director John Carpenter’s last major theatrical release, hitting movie theatres at the tail end of the 2001 summer movie season (it came out August 24th). It wasn’t a hit by any stretch of the imagination. It did get some decent reviews (big, fat Roger Ebert liked it) but, in general, audiences stayed away (the movie opened in 9th place). Carpenter aficionados didn’t seem to care for it, either, but then that wasn’t anything new, as Carpenter nerds tend not to care for the director’s “later” movies. I was in the minority when it came out, thinking that it was a terrific movie going experience. In fact, I actually made an effort and went and saw it twice in a movie theatre, once with my brother (he loved it, too) and once by myself. I’ll never forget the guy who got up and left the theatre during the decapitation scene involving the villain Big Daddy Mars lopping off some dude’s head and then holding that head up, screaming some indecipherable Martian language (I heard that audience member mumble “Awful” as he walked by me).

I’ve never quite understood the animosity that so many Carpenter fans have for the director’s “later” works, starting with Memoirs of an Invisible Man and ending with Carpenter’s last movie to date The Ward. Yes, Carpenter’s later horror movies aren’t as viscerally scary as Halloween or The Thing, but that doesn’t mean they’re terrible. They’re just different. Carpenter’s action movies, like Escape from L.A. and, to a certain extent, Vampires, are despised because they’re not slow burn thrillers like Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape from New York or “fun” like Big Trouble in Little China. It’s true that Carpenter’s later action efforts are slicker than his previous work, but they’re still plenty awesome and exciting (I’ve been a fan of Escape from LA since it came out and I will say that it is better than Escape from New York). I think people need to re-watch those “later” movies and accept something that Carpenter mentioned in the excellent interview book John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness by Gilles Boulenger, mainly that Carpenter knows that his movies aren’t as “scary as they used to be” because he “isn’t afraid of the same things he used to be afraid of” back when he made stuff like Halloween. Something else is going on with the director.

What is that something else? Watch his movies. Think about them. You’ll figure it out. You’ll like them way more than you did before. Even Ghosts of Mars.

So why, specifically, do I think John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars is awesome?


It’s both a “western” and a sort of “greatest hits” homage for John Carpenter made by the man himself: As all John Carpenter nerds know, the director has a major affinity for westerns. He got into the movie business to make them, but he came in at the very tail end of the Hollywood western cycle so he never got to make a “proper” one. He has made several “sort of” westerns, though. Assault on Precinct 13 is a kind of western (it was originally titled Anderson Alamo). Both Snake Plissken movies have western themes (Plissken is a gunslinger, for instance, brought in to do a dirty job). Big Trouble in Little China is a comedy western (Kurt Russell is doing an homage/parody of John Wayne). Even They Live has a western feel to it (think of the main theme to that movie, plus Roddy Piper’s John Nada character is a “man with no name.” Nada means no one and, hell, no one calls him John once in the actual movie). Vampires is probably the closest thing Carpenter has made to an actual western (southwest setting, badass gunslingers killing bad guys, the soundtrack). Ghosts of Mars features a mining town out in the middle of nowhere, Shining Canyon. Wanda De Jesus plays a town prostitute. The cops are the only real authority in the town. And Ice Cube’s James “Desolation” Williams is the ultimate outlaw (he robs payrolls, he runs around with a crew of fellow robbers. The only thing Williams doesn’t have is a black hat). And while Carpenter has said that the direct inspiration for Ghosts of Mars is the war movie Zulu (British soldiers surrounded and outnumbered by native warriors), you could also look at the ghosts attacking the cops in GoM as Indians. What’s more western than cowboys vs. Indians?

Ghosts of Mars has also been called a kind of “greatest hits” of Carpenter’s career. The story for GoM resembles Assault on Precinct 13 (cops and criminals having to band together to fight an overwhelming force outside trying to get inside). The ghosts are an amalgamation of the ghosts from The Fog and the alien presence of The Thing (they travel on the wind, they appear out of nowhere, they’re overwhelming when they do show up, and as they take over human bodies they can look like anything). Peter Jason is in it (he’s been in several Carpenter movies). Pam Grier is in it (she was Hershe in Escape from L.A.). And, heck, Desolation Williams is basically Snake Plissken (somewhat surly badass criminal who only believes in fighting to stay alive. He also wears red camo pants that resemble Plissken’s camo pants from Escape from New York).

Some Carpenter nerds dig the western thing more than the “personal homage” thing. The western thing is John Carpenter. It’s a big part of who he is. The “personal homage” thing is seen by some as the director being lazy (“He’s just recycling all of his old shit! Who the hell does that?”). I think it’s Carpenter being Carpenter and I’m down with it. Yes, there are things in GoM that we’ve seen from the director before, but we haven’t seen them in the order we see them in GoM. Ghosts of Mars is a unique movie in that way. And why is it a big deal if a director “talks” about similar subject matter again and again over his career? Isn’t that what big time directors do?

It’s both grim and fun: Ghosts of Mars is a grim goddamn movie. The Mars setting, which we see mostly at night, is desolate, sad, and dangerous, and that’s before the ghosts show up. When the weird chamber in the cave is accidentally opened by Joanna Cassidy’s scientist character Whitlock and the “ghost wind” is released, Mars becomes even more dangerous. The ghosts are going to take over every “non-Martian” in their path and then destroy everything else. There’s no way to stop the ghosts from getting you. You can kill the people the ghosts take over, sure, but the ghosts will just find another person to take over at some point and you’re back where you started (unless you’re the one the ghosts take over). The only way to get away from the ghosts is to get off Mars, and how the hell is that going to happen? The ghosts are everywhere, destroying everything not Martian. So, when you think about it, Ghosts of Mars is kind of messed up for everyone. The odds of surviving the ghosts are shockingly small. The only thing you can do is try to stay one step ahead of them. That can’t be a good feeling, can it?

The fun aspect of it is in the characters, all of them cool in different ways, and the action. When the movie finally establishes itself, establishes the world and the situation our heroes find themselves in, the action amps up big time. Running from building to building is incredibly dangerous (I can still hear those spears and other sharp flying objects whiz by). The gun battles, the fights, anytime anyone is in a vehicle, be it the big ass train or that land rover thing, it’s all badass fun. Even the brief scene where Whitlock travels by balloon is cool as hell because who would think that kind of thing would happen on Mars? Travel by balloon? Why doesn’t Whitlock have a jetpack or something like that?

The biggest laugh in the movie is when Williams gang member Dos cuts off his own thumb while trying to impress De Jesus’ Akooshay in the midst of making food can grenades (“That’s what you get, dumbass!”). And I think you have to laugh at poor Uno, as played by the great Duane Davis, trying to intimidate Henstridge’s Lt. Ballard. When he threatens to “Cut your fucking titties off” and she immobilizes him with a shot to the throat and then a wrist/arm lock, it’s a laugh riot.
And how about the ending? I’ll talk about that soon enough but, come on, why wouldn’t you smile at the ending?

The movie’s “flashback” structure: Lots of people hate the flashback structure that Carpenter uses in Ghosts of Mars. I’ve heard people complain that the flashbacks hurt the movie’s sense of suspense because you know that Henstridge’s Lt. Ballard survives. Some people also think that Carpenter uses the flashbacks arbitrarily, that he’s using them to “break up” what he knew was just Assault on Precinct 13 on the “angry red planet.” Carpenter didn’t want to repeat himself and, as a result, he’s got a movie that just doesn’t work as well as it should. I’ll admit that the flashback structure is kind of weird and does hurt the potential suspense Carpenter could have created if the characters and the audience discovered what was happening at the same time. But then it’s obvious that Carpenter didn’t want to do that, that he wanted to try something different, and I think it works. I usually hate extended flashbacks of any kind, but they work in GoM. Think about what’s actually happening in the movie. Lt. Ballard is telling her superiors what happened to her and her team while trying to pick up Williams for transport. Ballard tells her superiors she was attacked by weird monsters that took over the people in the town and she had to fight for her life. Who would believe that weird ass story? And then, at the end of the movie, we find out that it’s true, the ghosts are real, are taking over the planet, and everything non-Martian is fucked. Would that movie be as necessarily entertaining/interesting if it was just a straightforward story? Doubtful. So, I think people need to reexamine their distaste for the flashback structure in this movie. It makes sense. It also shows that, even if Carpenter is just rehashing his previous work, he’s showcasing it in a different way. The man is diverse. Celebrate it.

The whole “Mars society is a matriarchy” thing: In Ghosts of Mars the women are in charge. Why? The cartel that seems to own/operate Mars believes that a female led society is likely to be more cooperative and less naturally violent. The women who are in charge are all badasses, sure, but they don’t flaunt it like a man probably would. It is what it is, we’ve got shit to do, so let’s get it done. How many sci-fi horror action movies feature anything remotely like that? Few, if any at all, before or since. The matriarchy is also a great way to showcase lesbianism as both a good thing (some women are into other women and that’s cool) and a not as good thing (Pam Grier’s Commander Braddock tries to seduce Lt. Ballard, making sure she understands her career could go places if she just slept with her. Ballard rebuffs her because she isn’t a lesbian).

The matriarchal society thing also allows for great lines like “You just got the woman behind your bullshit.” “The woman.” Ha. Again, how many movies feature a line like that, genre and non-genre?

Down and dirty fight scenes: When Ghosts of Mars came out, the sci-fi action movie world was still in the thrall of The Matrix and its “bullet time” action and special effects scenes. Everything was big and exaggerated and like a modern old school kung fu movie. Carpenter, along with longtime collaborator and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada went the opposite way. The fights that we see in Ghosts of Mars are down and dirty brawls. Lots of close quarter punches and kicks. There are no real “quick cuts,” you can see everything happening in front of you. And it’s all very believable. The gun battles are generally the same, too. The gun battles that we see don’t go on forever, they’re up close, and they’re brutal. There’s like a three second sequence in the big battle between the cops and criminals and the ghosts where Liam White’s Descanso shoots a ghost with a shotgun. The blast from the shotgun is so violent that the sequence makes you flinch, and it happens that way because we’re so close to the action.

Now, Carpenter certainly didn’t invent the down and dirty, up close and personal modern fight scene, but his use of it at the beginning of the “bullet time” kung fu thing should be applauded. “Bullet time” is fun to look at, but it really isn’t any more exciting than what we see in Ghosts of Mars. I actually prefer the kind of fights that we see in GoM. And think about this. Remember the big kung fu scenes in Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China? Watch those and then watch the fight scenes in Ghosts of Mars. Both feature big, multi-character/multi-person brawls, but they feel very different. Carpenter can do anything.

Natasha Henstridge: Henstridge plays Lt. Melanie Ballard, the lead female character of the story. Ballard was originally going to be played by rock star Courtney Love but she “didn’t work out” (I believe that’s what Carpenter says on the DVD commentary. So, did Love really break her foot or ankle before filming began or is that just the story the producers came up with to explain Love just not being good enough to star in the movie?). Henstridge, famous for being the hot babe alien in the Species movies, was brought in likely because of that fame (why wouldn’t sci-fi fans want to see Henstridge in another sci-fi movie?) and, heck, she’s a damn good actress to boot.

What I’ve always loved about Henstridge as Ballard is that she plays her as kind of a nerd. Yes, she has a penchant for taking that drug “Clear” every so often, but when she’s on the job she’s by the book and badass. She takes shit from no one, especially her boss Braddock or Jason Statham’s Sgt. Jericho, who constantly comes on to her. She’s also unafraid to take charge of the situation and ask potentially stupid sounding questions. Everyone laughs at Ballard when she asks Whitlock about what happens if they blow up the nuclear power plant in town. “There will be a big explosion, right?” Well, obviously there will be a big explosion, but that’s not what she’s asking about. She’s asking about the nuclear material in the plant. If they blow up the plant, will the nuclear material inside blow up, too, creating a nuclear explosion? If you don’t know anything about how nuclear power plants work, it’s not a bad question to ask. So cut Ballard some slack there, people.

It’s too bad Henstridge didn’t get more action movie work after Ghosts of Mars. She did do that TV show She Spies, which was sort of an action comedy, but it wasn’t a serious action vehicle. She should have gotten the chance to do more.

Image Credit: Sony Pictures

Ice Cube: Ice Cube plays Mars criminal James “Desolation” Williams, the planet’s most badass bad guy. You can’t really trust him, but if the shit goes down and it works for him he’ll help you out. That’s sort of admirable. And he creates a kind of friendship with Lt. Ballard, promising her that he’ll fight alongside her again when “the tide is up.” And that’s exactly what he does. I know that Ice Cube doesn’t particularly care for this movie (I know that he’s said it’s the worst thing he’s been in, which is pretty harsh), but I think he’s great in it. He’s exactly the kind of badass you expect to see in a John Carpenter movie. He’s chock full of attitude, he can fight and shoot like an expert, and he’s a guy you just don’t want to mess with. I love Desolation Williams.

And think about this. Would Ice Cube have gotten the lead in XXX: State of the Union if he didn’t star in Ghosts of Mars? Probably not. Ghosts of Mars may have tanked at the box office, but it did show that Ice Cube could carry a major action movie if called upon to do so.

James “Desolation” Williams is a great anti-hero. I think he deserves way more respect than he gets.

Jason Statham: Ghosts of Mars was Statham’s first major American movie. He was originally set to play Desolation Williams but, as I understand it, the studio didn’t want him to star as he was “untested” at that time, so Carpenter created the Sgt. Jericho character for him. And Jericho is a fine showcase for what Statham can do as an actor as Jericho is a badass man of action, a smartass, and kind of a sleazebag. Every second he’s on screen you want to see what he’s going to do next. You’re just drawn to him. Carpenter clearly saw that Statham could be the next big thing, and, to a certain extent, that’s what happened. Statham became Frank Martin, the Transporter, he became The Mechanic, and he became one of The Expendables. None of that would have happened if Statham wasn’t Sgt. Jericho.

Statham also has tremendous chemistry with everyone in the movie, from Henstridge to Ice Cube to Pam Grier to even Duane Davis. That’s always a good thing.

I wish Carpenter was still actively making movies. I’d love to see Carpenter make a movie again with Statham, with Statham as the star. Statham didn’t get to play Desolation Williams, but I bet, if given the right story and opportunity, Carpenter could do great things with Statham. The world could always use another Napoleon Wilson/Snake Plissken/Desolation Williams, right?

Peter Jason as the train conductor: Peter Jason is a terrific character actor and frequent Carpenter collaborator (he also made a bunch of movies with Walter Hill) and he’s hilarious as train conductor McSimms. He gets to fight in the final battle sequence, throwing bombs at the ghosts and kicking ass, and he gets an actual death scene (poor guy is cut to pieces by multiple flying projectiles). My favorite McSimms moment in the movie, though, is his back and forth with Lt. Ballard when she orders him to go back to Shining Canyon. “No way.” But that’s an order. “I don’t care.” You can’t just tell a guy like McSimms to go do something. He isn’t dying for bullshit. Great stuff.

Image Credit: Sony Pictures

The actual “Ghosts of Mars” and the main villain Big Daddy Mars: The ghosts of Ghosts of Mars start out as a swirling mist that travels from spot to spot on Mars, taking over everything that isn’t Martian. We’re not sure how the long gone Martian civilization created them or really what they specifically are (are they actual ghosts? Is it some kind of virus? Maybe they’re microscopic bugs of some sort) but we know that when they’re out and about they’re deadly. You can’t kill them, you can’t stop them, all you can do is try to stay one step ahead of them. That’s terrifying. How the hell are you going to beat them? That’s a terrific idea.

And check out what happens when the ghosts take over humans. The humans paint themselves up, alter their bodies, and freak the fuck out. Who would want to come up against things like that, in conflict or just in general? I know I wouldn’t.

Now, when it comes to the lead ghost, Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), people complain that he looks like rock star Marilyn Manson. It’s true, BDM does look like Manson, but only from certain angles (and I’ve always figured that the whole Manson thing was a coincidence more than anything else). What Big Daddy Mars really looks like is a big dude with a sword who yells lots of weird Martian gibberish. He likes to cut off heads, lead his people in chants, and kill everything non-Martian in his way. And when he gets burned up, holy crap, Big Daddy Mars is a terrifying presence.

So, yeah, Big Daddy Mars is a cool villain. He’s a monster that you don’t want to mess with in any way.

The “Non-PC” aspects of the story: If Ghosts of Mars were a “modern” western, the ghosts would win because they’re just misunderstood and any character who says something that almost sounds pro-colonialism would no doubt die horribly. I mean, the ghosts are the Indians, after all. They’re the victims. Ghosts of Mars doesn’t take that stance at all. The ghosts are savage beasts who need to be stopped, Lt. Ballard openly says that she doesn’t give a shit about the plight of the ghosts because Mars is “no longer their planet” (she also openly complains about cops not having rights anymore), and while you can argue that the ghosts ultimately win at the end of the movie Ballard and Williams, the “evil humans,” go out fighting. You don’t get any more old school, “non-PC” than that.

The soundtrack: The Ghosts of Mars soundtrack is the last movie soundtrack Carpenter composed for one of his own movies (someone else did the soundtrack for The Ward and Carpenter’s son Cody did the music for his two Masters of Horror episodes Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life) and the GoM soundtrack is brilliant. Part usual Carpenter synth score, part badass heavy metal concert, it’s kickass from start to finish. With the help of metal gods Anthrax, along with guitarists Buckethead and Steve Vai, Carpenter puts together a soundtrack that you want to listen to, especially if you’re a metal fan. Now, it’s true that the soundtrack CD sounds different than the actual movie soundtrack (the opening theme on the CD has a guitar solo in it while the theme in the movie doesn’t, and the end credits theme is slightly different), but they’re both fucking awesome.

My favorite themes in the movie? The opening theme, of course, both in the movie and on the CD. It’s a full on Carpenter theme, the kind of theme we expect to hear from a synth master. And the guitar solo that appears on the CD still gets me every time I hear it.

The closing credits theme, “Kick Ass,” is exactly that. It kicks ass. It’s six minutes of enthralling metal that will make you pump your fist in the air, do the devil horns sign, and, at times, air guitar.

You didn’t do all three of those things? Listen to it again. It’ll happen.

My favorite bit of music from the movie? “Pam Grier’s Head,” the music cue that reveals what happened to Commander Braddock. The song gets your blood pumping. I also want to say that if and when I ever get my own radio show/podcast, this song will open every show. It’s that badass.

The ending: The movie ends with Ballard and Williams banding together to fight off the ghosts that have infiltrated the Mars colony capital Chryse. Williams gives Ballard a shiny machine gun (after telling her “Tide’s up. Time to stay alive,” which is an awesome line), they walk down the hallway into battle, and Ice Cube looks directly into the camera as he walks by while Henstridge cocks the machine gun in an exaggerated way. It’s hilarious, it’s brilliant, it’s badass, it’s just so perfect (and I believe Carpenter says on the DVD commentary track that Ice Cube came up with the looking into the camera thing). It’s the biggest part of the whole “the movie is both grim and fun” thing. Desolation Williams looking into the camera is his way of the movie saying, “Hey, hope you enjoyed this ridiculous story.” I know I did.

“You know, if you ever want to come to the other side you’d make a hell of a crook.”
“You’d make a hell of a cop.”
“Let’s just kick some ass.”
“It’s what we do best.” (Ice Cube looks into the camera).

Classic stuff.


I’m not entirely sure if Ghosts of Mars has gained that “second look” that so many of Carpenter’s other movies have. I do know that it occasionally shows up as a midnight movie at the IFC Center in New York City, usually when that theatre is doing some sort of John Carpenter retrospective. It’s been re-issued on DVD a few times, both as a standalone movie and as part of a compilation, sometimes Carpenter related, sometimes not. It still plays on cable TV and pops up on various streaming outlets. As I said at the beginning, I’ve been in love with Ghosts of Mars since I first saw it. It’s one of the first DVDs I ever bought. It’s a movie I like to revisit, just to see if it’s still as good as the first time I saw it. And it always is. Ghosts of Mars is still awesome.

And I also believe that had Ghosts of Mars been made by a young, upstart moviemaker back in 2001 it would have been hailed immediately as a cult classic and would have a better reputation than it does now. As I said earlier, people who are down on Carpenter’s “later” work really need to make an effort to check it out again and reexamine it. It’s good, meaningful work all around, and even when you see something that really is lesser than his other stuff (I’m looking at you Masters of Horror: Pro-Life) it’s still more interesting than a good movie by almost anyone else. We need to appreciate and celebrate directors like John Carpenter and agitate for them to get another chance to make another movie. One of these days Carpenter will be gone and we’ll never get that last movie, that last work, whatever it happens to end up being. And that realization will suck when it happens.

If you’ve never seen Ghosts of Mars, go ahead and check it out. If you did see it when it came out or at some point after that and didn’t care for it, check it out again. Give it another shot. It’s worth checking out.

John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. It’s still awesome.


Image Credit: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment


Check out my John Carpenter lists!

Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #23-#19
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #18-#14
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #13-#9
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #8-#4
Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies: #3-#1
The Top 5 John Carpenter Movie Soundtracks
The Top 5 John Carpenter Movie Themes
The Top 5 John Carpenter Movie Villains


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