Ghosts of Mars

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In the future, zombie movies will take place on Mars. They will still be trashy, predictable affairs with more blood than brains, but the change of venue will be nice.

The future is here with “Ghosts of Mars,” properly titled “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars,” to distinguish it from “Martha Stewart’s Ghosts of Mars” and “William Shakespeare’s Ghosts of Mars.” John Carpenter — deservedly a legend for “Halloween” and a handful of other thrillers — apparently hopes his name alone will bring people to his latest offering, an unpleasant sci-fi horror film that has little more than John Carpenter’s name to make it noteworthy.

It is A.D. 2176, and Mars has been colonized. There is a matriarchal society, though this comes into play exactly zero times in the story; it’s simply an interesting idea that writer/director Carpenter brings up and then throws away. A prison-transfer train comes into Mars’ main city, Chryse, empty except for one Mars police officer, Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge). Called before a tribunal, she tells what happened. The rest of the film is a flashback, and flashbacks within flashbacks.

(One thing Carpenter does well is different points of view. When a character arrives on the scene and relates what has just happened to him, we don’t just hear a monologue; we see the event, as if we’d been there. As a result, we usually know what’s happeneing to everyone at all times.)

Melanie was one of a handful of cops going to a prison in Shining Canyon to pick up notorious criminal Jimmy “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) and take him back to Chryse. Upon arrival, they find everyone brutally murdered, the town empty, and only a few of the prisoners remaining.

Officer Jericho Butler (Jason Statham) stops hitting on Melanie long enough to go snooping around. He discovers a horrific cult out in the desert, where the participants pierce themselves, carve their own flesh, and wear pasty white makeup. A cult of Goth teens is awful indeed, but these people are also fond of decapitating everyone they encounter, which makes them slightly worse. They even get commanding officer Helena (Pam Grier), a no-nonsense lesbian who is soon a headless lesbian.

One of the prisoners who is still alive, Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), explains what’s going on: Somehow, a huge collection of vaporous creatures were awakened, and they’re taking over the bodies of anyone who disturbs them. Those cultists are possessed, and if you kill them, the ghosts will merely move to the next warm body.

The rest of the film alternates between: Jericho and Melanie’s sexual banter, reminiscent of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, if Tracy and Hepburn had been penis-obsessed degenerates; the question of whether notorious criminal Jimmy “Desolation” Williams is a worse threat than the ghost Martians, or whether he can be trusted not to kill the cops if they all work together; and the question of how to kill the ghosts, who apparently are not that good at being ghosts, considering they can’t even move through walls or doors. People say, “What’s happening out there?!” a lot, and people get really worked up about everything, no matter what it is.

It’s hard to call this a thriller, since there is nothing thrilling about it. There is little suspense over who will survive, because we already know Melanie is the only one left to tell the story. It appears we were meant to be horrified by the actions of the people who are possessed, and I’ll confess a certain amount of horror, but not the kind intended. All their flesh-piercing and head-removing is gross and distasteful, but I was never frightened by it, much less entertained. It strikes me more as something you include in your zombie movie just because you like to be disgusting, and not because it gives audiences chills.

Ice Cube gives further proof of my theory than no movie is ever improved by putting a rapper in it. He’s all attitude and no personality, and certainly no charisma. Natasha Henstridge is fine to look at, and she’d probably make a good action hero, given a good script. This is a sub-par sci-fi thriller, with a plot borrowed from last year’s “Pitch Black” and dialogue taken from every action movie of the past 10 years. Give up the “Ghosts.”

D+ (; R, frequent harsh profanity, abundant bloody.)

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