- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

"Ghosts of Mars" reaffirms Hollywood's obsession with exploiting the red planet in ludicrous science-fiction melodrama. How many fiascoes must pile up before someone has enough pride to reverse the trend?

"Mission to Mars," "Red Planet" and now "Ghosts of Mars," a futuristic zombie thriller of supreme clumsiness and staleness from John Carpenter, have made it plain that intelligent speculative fiction about Martian exploration and colonization is as nonexistent among filmmakers as manned exploration of the moon or Mars in the space program.

When "2001: A Space Odyssey" has its 2001 revival later this year, Stanley Kubrick freaks may insist on prattling about his brilliantly monotonous pacing or the treachery of poor HAL. But the most striking aspect to nonpros with a zest for space exploration may be the sheer tardiness of comparable real-life breakthroughs.

Where are those moon stations that Kubrick and his designers anticipated? Or the spaceships that boast artificial gravity? Or the daring missions to giant and mind-bending Jupiter? In retrospect, it's clear that Mr. Kubrick and the writer, Sir Arthur Clarke, took a lot of progress for granted. The year 3001 might be the more prudent target date for a revival confirming the movie's vision of space exploration.

Mr. Carpenter does his knuckleheaded bit to keep the Martian sector in a stagnant condition. The shoddiness isn't instantly evident because the prologue claims a time frame well into the future and the models of a rail system on the planet look kind of cute. The characters seem to function on the surface with miniaturized breathing devices, and we're told that "Airlock Earth," the creation of a completely breathable atmosphere on Mars, is only a decade in the future.

That's about the last indication that something of an intriguing futuristic nature has been contemplated by Mr. Carpenter and his co-writer. The remainder of the film is a potboiler about a detachment of constables investigating reports of weirdness at a remote mining outpost who find themselves confronted with ghoulish hordes that enjoy overwhelming any human prey in sight and get a perverse kick out of arranging severed limbs and heads in gruesome decorative patterns.

The heroine is Natasha Henstridge of "Species" as Lt. Melanie Ballard, who becomes the ranking gendarme when Pam Grier is sacrificed prematurely to the ghouls. We're also informed that the colony is a matriarchal society (governed by Rosemary Forsythe, it would appear from the framing episode, in which Miss Henstridge recalls her harrowing mission).

This gag puts a premium on the available studs, Jason Statham as a cop named Jericho who hopes to impress Melanie with his sperm count, and Ice Cube as a lawbreaker called Desolation Williams, recruited from the lockup when it becomes obvious that the humans are outnumbered by the zombies.

Evidently, Courtney Love dodged the leading role by being injured at the right time. Mr. Carpenter must have envisioned a sort of siege melodrama involving Miss Love, Miss Grier and Joanna Cassidy.

Miss Cassidy turns up as a repentant Dr. Frankenstein, claiming responsibility for unleashing a kind of red-dust pestilence that causes the zombie transformation, evidently by invading facial cavities, preferably the ear canals.

Not that "Ghosts of Mars" isn't more diverting than the earliest Carpenter thrillers, which tended to accentuate the portentous. Now Mr. Carpenter doesn't pretend to have anything ominous to hide. The menacing nonsense is explicit and luridly laughable from start to finish.


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