SEP 2001

[Agenda welcomes Jim back after his recent study of whether new babies change our lives, too.--Ed.]

John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube

Over the years John Carpenter has repeatedly demonstrated his love for low-art film genres distasteful to most critics: horror, science fiction (SF), and action. And he’s built a successful career on low-budget movies made within and across these scorned genres. While many such movies are released directly to videostores, Carpenter’s quality and loyal audience keeps his films on the big screens in multiplexes across the U.S.

Carpenter’s formula (which shows up in his films ranging from Halloween and The Thing to In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires) is simple: place a small group of characters (led by the film’s hero) in an isolated setting where they must fight a horrible enemy. When Carpenter makes his films, he not only directs them, but also writes the scripts and composes the music all within his own company: the suitably grandiose "Storm King Productions." As one might guess, it follows from this method that the triumph of the dedicated individual always features prominently in his films. This individualist ethic plays strongly in the SF, horror, and action genres. Maybe this is why Carpenter is satisfied to remain in what many treat as a cinematic ghetto.

In Ghosts of Mars humans have begun terraforming and colonization of the titular planet, accidentally unleashing an anti-imperialist revolution of relentless and brutally violent proportions (in the form of the titular "ghosts"). These "ghosts" move from town to town, taking possession of the planet’s human inhabitants - mostly miners there to help plunder the resources of Mars - and using their bodies to wreak bloody vengeance upon the other colonists. Interestingly, the spirits render their hosts gruesome and deformed, with multiple piercings and superficially cut wounds that would surely make them pariahs even were they able to free themselves from the ghosts. Having the humans undo their own conquest and destroy their physical bodies in the process presents a fascinating version of the time–honored "man is his own worst enemy" theme. It also poses the notion that the working class (the miners) might yet be led down the path of bloody revolution, even if it turns out to be against their collective will.

Enter Melanie Ballard: played by Henstridge, and aptly named in reference to J.G. Ballard - one of the rare SF authors who, predicting dire psychic consequences for the species, sides vigorously against human exploration and colonization of space. After the premature death of her commanding officer, Ballard leads a team of human police sent into one of the mining towns to bring prisoner James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) to trial in the distant capitol city of Chryse for the murders committed in a neighboring town. In the course of the battle that ensues against the possessed humans, however, it becomes painfully clear that Desolation is innocent (of murder, at least). It also becomes clear that Ballard herself, though ostensibly on the side of the law, is not inflexibly so when her immediate needs or desires are at stake.

From the film’s first sequence, the viewer knows that Ballard survives her mission, because the clever narrative structure sends us through a series of flashbacks narrated by Ballard from the present time of the frame story: her "after action" report delivered before a tribunal of the matriarchal government. This story architecture deliberately shifts the viewer’s attention from the generically conventional "who will survive?" to a more deeply thought provoking question: "why did she survive?" By the end we know it’s because … well let’s just say Carpenter’s individualism is showing.

Carpenter’s Mars is governed by a matriarchy—one that appears to be dominated by Lesbians with separatist leanings. If it sounds like we have entered anti-feminist backlash territory, bear with it for a moment because this matriarchy answers to the higher authority of a so-called "cartel"—left suitably vague to stand in for rapacious capitalism. Thus instead of undermining Carpenter’s feminist choice of a strong female hero, this backdrop underscores a notion within the film that even if women are holding the reigns of power, capitalism run amok will still kill us all just as viciously. The inherently corrupt power of the institution itself remains a problem regardless of the gender specifics of those who imagine themselves its keepers.

In the first few minutes of the movie, Melanie Ballard professes herself "as straight as they come" just after the viewer has seen her on a mild drug trip, and just after her lesbian commanding officer hits on her even while accusing her of being high. So her reply becomes a defense both of her illegal drug use and of her anti-social sexual preference. Here Carpenter sets up the individualist tendency that will save her life. Later, this willingness to flout convention comes further to Ballard’s aid when she and Desolation forge an alliance with the understanding that only by setting aside their differences as people on opposite sides of the law can they hope to escape the onslaught of the possessed miners. The fact that they truly are on opposite sides of the law is constantly questioned. At one moment Desolation snarls at her that the only difference between them is that "you’ve got The Woman behind your bullshit."

Rather than discussing in any great depth the issues it raises (including one connecting "race" with "criminality"), however, Ghosts contentedly keeps its intelligence just below the surface—not too overt, not too deep. By the end of the film, the viewer is left feeling more of a physical adrenaline rush borne on the film’s action and horror elements than any great mental inspiration that may have resulted from a shift in the narrative balance toward weightier things. That this adrenaline rush occurs at all, however, testifies that the script carefully fosters the viewer’s concern for the well being of this group of fictional people. This is a special achievement considering that from the film’s frame story, the viewer already can assume that all but Ballard will die during the course of the story. Carpenter creates satisfying entertainment by including enough meaningful subtext to make the excitement of his ideas stick in the mind even after the excitement of the film’s action has faded.

ABOUT THIS FEATURE: My aim isn’t to help movies do well or poorly at the box office, but to convince you that movies (even mainstream Hollywood products) deserve our attention as works of art. The goal of art is to enrich our lives so much that "art" is inseparable from "our lives." Art products can open us to the direct creation of our individual lives and, by extension, our living cultural evolution. The moving image comprises the dominant art form of our era. In this commodified form art images tend to disconnect from their true goal. The purpose of critique is to reconnect art, a kind of theory, with the practice of life. Is this like pushing square pegs into round holes? Maybe, but practice makes it less difficult (as my own lifelong anarchist strivings would illustrate). So let’s indulge this approach to film, and see where it leads. I invite you to email me questions and comments at


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