Ghosts Of Mars

Ghosts Of Mars (2001)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Joanna Cassidy
Extras: Commentary Track, Video Diary, Special Effects Featurette, Soundtrack Featurette, Filmographies

Every time cult director John Carpenter is releasing a new movie, horror fans are feverishly awaiting the results. In the past, the director has delivered a number of memorable movie and horror moments and with his latest project, "Ghosts Of Mars" fans were expecting no less. Sadly, the film did very poorly at the box office, but in order to give it a higher profile, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has prepared a Special Edition DVD for this film. Let’s see how it all turned out.

A train on auto-pilot approaches a station in a Mars colony and comes to a stop. It is empty, except one person. Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a police officer, who was part of a squad that was sent out to a mine to apprehend James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) who had been arrested on counts of murder.

In front of a hearing, Ballard is retelling the events of the past days, the story of the squad arriving at the mines, where they found that something strange was going on. All the inhabitants of the city had been turned into an army of zombies. A spirit that was buried in the soil of the Red Planet was unleashed and uses the human bodies as hosts for only one goal. Eradicate all intruders! A fight for survival ensues, as the squad and their prisoner try to escape the city before the monstrous creatures can catch up with them.

The thing that is probably the most surprising about "Ghosts Of Mars" is the fact how modern the entire film feels. The editing, the visual style, the costumes and the dialogue, all feels very contemporary, and considering that John Carpenter is not in his 20s any more, I think it proves just how in touch this director really is with movies. On the downside however, "Ghosts Of Mars" is hardly what you would call "Fresh." If I had to describe the movie in a word, I’d call it "The Thing 2001." The body-invasion/possession theme can be found throughout Carpenters body of work. Whether it’s the "They Live," "Prince Of Darkness," "Vampires," "Village of the Damned," "The Thing," or "Christine," the theme can be found in literally all of his movies in some way or another. In "Ghosts Of Mars" now we have yet another story in the same vein and it soon becomes evident that the movie is a hotchpotch of elements from many of his own films, as well as others. When watching the film you will find yourself reminded of "The Thing," "Alien," "Prince Of Darkness," "Dawn of the Dead" and many others. The movie somehow lacks its own identity.

The movie’s camera work and production design is also very contemporary. The Martians do look like they leaped off a 90s music video – Rob Zombie and Marilyn Mansion look-alikes are all over – enhancing the modern feel of the film. Sadly, that is the disappointment of the movie. In the past, Carpenter was able to create memorable images, that stay in viewers’ minds for a long time. There are no such signature shots in "Ghosts Of Mars" and they are sorely missed. The film just breezes by without the striking visuals we’ve come to expect from one of horror’s greatest directors. In the course of it, the film also feels a bit shallow and it never manages to build the suspense and terror of Carpenter’s classic films. With its frantic pacing, the film just doesn’t have enough atmosphere to really scare.

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment is bringing us "Ghosts Of Mars" in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> presentation on this DVD in the movie’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as well as a cropped <$PS,pan&scan> version. The transfer is very clean and entirely free of defects. The <$PS,widescreen> transfer nicely reproduces the camera work of the movie, which still carries Carpenter’s unique signature in many shots, and reveals a good level of detail. In a few shots, the image appeared to become a little blurry, especially when heavy camera movement was involved and a bit of edge-enhancement is evident in a number of shots. In general the transfer seems a bit soft but never distractingly so. It is a result of the technical limitations of today’s TV signal format when handling red signals and since the majority of the movie is bathed in red – whether its’ the Mars settings or the blood of the victims – it is truly taxing any video format. Colors are nicely reproduced with very natural-looking colors and flesh tones. Blacks are deep and give the image the depth they need without ever losing detail. The compression has been done well without introducing distracting artifacts.

The disc comes with only one audio track, but that’s a powerful <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix, and subtitles in English and French. The audio track is very energetic and dynamic, making very aggressive use of the surround channels. It is hardly surprising since "Ghosts Of Mars" is a new movie and John Carpenter has always been a very sonically conscious director. The surrounds are very active throughout the entire film, creating a wide sound field in the front and rear, and some great effects bring out the best of the multi-channel format. The track has a very wide frequency response with plenty of punch and a great low-end extension. Basses are rock solid and the high ends are always clear and free of distortion. Carpenter has once again contributed to the core of the movie and the heavy industrial style metal score is perfectly for this movie.

"Ghosts Of Mars" features a <$commentary,commentary track> by director John Carpenter and actress Natasha Henstridge. Especially Carpenter appears very relaxed and is quite talkative during the commentary, sharing thoughts, and anecdotes about the production, as well as some more technically information. Natasha Henstridge is also quite talkative and together they manage to have a very active flow of information with Carpenter often serving as a moderator and interviewer for his star. It is a commentary approach he used on various occasions before and one that typically works quite well as it presents us with a fairly animated conversation at all times that is however not always directly related to the images on the screen.

A video diary is also part of the release, called "Red Desert Nights." It is a very well-put together home video featurette covering the shooting of the film. Free of the typical talking heads of promotional making-of featurettes, this is a refreshing look behind the scenes of the movie with footage that was taken, just as things went along. It includes rehearsal footage, preparations, conversations on the set, and other stuff, and in general captures the ambiance of the set very nicely.

Another featurette focuses on the special effects of the movie, revealing many of the effects shot in the film and explaining in more detail how they were achieved. From miniature shoots to green screen acting, this 6-minute featurette is a nice addition to the disc.

"Scoring Ghosts Of Mars" is another featurette, which takes viewers into the recording studios as Steve Vai, Anthrax and Buckethead record the score for the movie that was written by John Carpenter. It is a nice and much-too-rare look at an aspect of filmmaking that is often overlooked.

The DVD is rounded out by cast and crew filmographies, which sadly do not include biographies.

Despite my criticism above, I do want to point out that I found "Ghosts Of Mars" to be entertaining and enjoyable. Despite its flaws, the movie is engaging enough to keep viewers interested in what’s going to happen next and to learn how Lieutenant Ballard survived the carnage. The film has a certain cool-factor that clearly sets it apart from the current crop of mindless teenage horror flicks and it has been a long while since we’ve seen a horde of visceral creatures like here. Carpenter is still not back to his old form, but "Ghosts Of Mars" is nonetheless an entertaining movie. The features on the DVD add some more depth to the film, so give it a try!