There aren’t many directors who’ve put together a run of great films quite like that of the legendary John Carpenter. The genre film maestro’s remarkable streak, stretching from his brutal Hawksian riff Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976, to his muscular political satire They Live in 1988, is a miraculous showcase of stylistic elasticity. Could any other film-maker have shifted from the greasy nastiness of Christine to the glowing warmth of Starman within a year, without breaking stride?
Then the 1990s arrived, and just like that the Carpenter magic seemed to evaporate – critical opinion harshened, and whatever commercial pull he’d had was gone. Even now, as the more minor entries in his 1980s oeuvre continue to be re-evaluated and championed anew, there still seems to be a consensus that the director’s form dropped off and never recovered – that his late-career catalogue isn’t of any particular value, save for one last masterpiece, In the Mouth of Madness.
It’s a shame that this era is so emphatically dismissed, because Carpenter never lost his touch, and actually put out some of his most formally fascinating work as his reputation dwindled. His last effort before a protracted hiatus from film-making, 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, is perhaps the best of these overwhelmingly maligned projects – a genre-mashing, thrash metal-infused curio, in which Carpenter pulls off one of his most impressive balancing acts, deftly commingling hyper-simplified entertainment with aggressive experimentation.
Ghosts of Mars began life as Escape from Mars, another installment in the Snake Plissken saga, but received some cosmetic adjustments after Escape from LA turned out to be a financial failure. Plissken, played with terse, gravelly charisma by frequent Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell, wasn’t a viable lead anymore – so the anti-hero mantle was assumed by a new prisoner, James “Desolation” Williams, played by Ice Cube. The transition is actually fairly seamless – the rapper does a sturdy job of preserving Plissken’s swagger and caustic wit, while at the same time making the role feel distinctive with his own specific tics and inflections. Carpenter fills out his main cast with Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and Pam Grier, as members of the police squad sent to transfer Desolation to Chryse, the first human city on Mars.
In its core dynamics, the film is just as ruthlessly direct as Carpenter’s other variations on a Hawksian theme: a group of people find themselves confined to an area (in this case a mining town pulled straight from a classic western, awash with the Red Planet’s rusty hues), and are forced to survive under pressure as they’re besieged by encroaching hostile forces. In Assault on Precinct 13, those forces appear in the form of a bloodthirsty gang waging war upon the LAPD; in The Fog, they’re phantom pirates exacting revenge upon a coastal town with a wicked history; and in Ghosts of Mars, they’re the spirits of the indigenous Martians, awakened from their ancient tomb, possessing the bodies of the intruding human species and turning them into zombielike instruments of destruction.
That’s where the directness ends. If Ghosts of Mars were plainer, if its events played out in uncomplicated fashion, it would probably still be an absolute blast – with its buddy film repartee, pulpy horror, chunky action, and pulsating soundtrack. Instead, like Burroughs or Bowie, Carpenter chops the film into pieces and splices it back together again, creating a stranger, richer text. The resulting film makes its characters and its audience negotiate a disorienting structural maze, replete with recursive fades instead of conventional cuts, and flashbacks within flashbacks instead of linear narrative thrust. It makes for an engrossingly slippery, unreliable viewing experience, in which our usual perception of pacing and continuity is knocked off of its axis – which, given the extraterrestrial setting, makes sense.
Constantly coursing through this eclectic tangle is an interesting political current – there’s a perfectly valid reading of the film that contextualises the ostensible heroes as mere cogs in a colonial enterprise, reaping the violent consequences of their fixation on dominion. “This isn’t their planet anymore,” says Henstridge’s police lieutenant, as she resolves to wipe out the native Martians with an all-out offensive. Sound familiar? Admittedly, its all a bit too broad to be genuinely incisive, but there are definitely far more perfunctory pieces of commentary on the same subject in self-serious films that try a lot harder to be meaningful.
And, you know, you can always just ignore the allegory. Part of the beauty of Carpenter’s work is its flexibility – you can mine its thematic veins, or you can simply sit back and enjoy the ride. That Ghosts of Mars continues to be widely rejected for being corny and confusing is emblematic of the larger problem of homogenisation in a Hollywood wasteland that repudiates bold visions. Maybe it’s for the best that Carpenter spends his time playing synth music and video games nowadays, and hasn’t directed a film since 2010 – mainstream critics and audiences, whose taste is only getting blander and more incurious, and who mindlessly kowtow at the feet of creatively bankrupt corporations, don’t really deserve such a thrillingly idiosyncratic artist.
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