John Carpenter's responsible for some of the finest films in the horror canon, from Halloween, The Thing, and The Fog, to underrated classics like Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness. He's dabbled in Sci-fi (Dark Star), suspense (Assault on Precinct 13), and even comedy (Big Trouble in Little China). With Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter combines all of the above, with decidedly mixed results.
A Martian Police Force squad, led by Helena (Pam Grier) and Mel (Natasha Henstridge), are dispatched to a remote mining colony to pick up the notorious criminal, James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube). Upon arrival, however, the team discovers that the colony has become a charnel house, where one half of the town's population have been massacred, while the other half has undergone some sort of strange transformation that's turned them into blood-thirsty savages. Helena is killed, leaving Mel in charge of a ragtag squad that consists of the rakish Jericho (Jason Statham), the rookie cop, Bashira (Clea DuVall), and a host of prisoners, including Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), the scientist who knows what it is they're up against, and "Desolation" Williams, himself.
In this, Carpenter's second stab at a loose remake of Rio Bravo (the first being Precinct 13, which featured a similar siege theme), the director's patented macho dialogue gets something of an estrogen injection. In this future, Mars is run by a matriarchal society, where men are considered second class citizens (or "breeders" as Jericho terms it), and women call all the shots. This would all work wonderfully if the women in the film were all as tough as Henstridge's Mel (and even she has myriad weaknesses and faults), but, sadly, this is not the case. Grier's Helena is killed off before she gets to fire a single round, while DuVall's Bashira spends much of her time frozen like a deer in headlights, nearly costing Mel her life! The only other seemingly resourceful woman in the film is Whitlock, but, then again, she's the whole reason they're in this mess in the first place. For a supposed paean to "girl power", Ghosts of Mars is pretty damned misogynistic!
Still, Ghosts of Mars is great fun for fans of Carpenter's typically hammy action/horror stuff, like Vampires or They Live , and features the same pulpy, cliché-ridden dialogue and comic book violence that makes those movies such enormously fun guilty pleasures.
Ghosts of Mars comes to Blu-ray in a sharp 1080p 2.40:1 transfer that boasts a high level of detail, depth, and solid color representation - for what limited colors there are. You see, the sets are bathed in a sort of orange/amber glow for the most part, so scenes outdoors don't exactly knock your socks off in terms of vibrancy. Once indoors, however, skin tones and ambient lighting look fantastic. There's a very fine cinematic grain, but, otherwise, no artifacts to speak of, and blacks are deep and true. There was one scene in particular, where Mel and Desolation are facing off in a boiler room, and ribbons of purple and green smoke are wafting upwards in the background. It's a sequence that has an almost three dimensional quality. I'd never noticed this on DVD, and I've seen this film more times than I care to admit.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is, quite simply, skull-crushing stuff if speed metal riffage is your bag. Sadly, the sound effects don't come off as burly as the crunchy metal guitars (courtesy of Anthrax), with explosions and gunfire sounding a bit canned and weak, and atmospherics sorely lacking. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and there's the occasional rumble from the subwoofer, but, while it's a serviceable soundtrack, this mix is not nearly as impressive as the video transfer.
Extras are carryovers from the DVD release, and include a breezy commentary with Henstridge and Carpenter, a video "diary" that features rough looking VHS footage of the production, and an equally rough looking peek at Anthrax, Steve Vai, Buckethead, and Carpenter in the recording studio, laying down the tracks for the score. There's also a brief featurette focusing on the film's visual FX work. All supplements are presented in standard definition.
Ghosts of Mars is a guilty pleasure of mine, much like many of the later films in Carpenter's oeuvre. It's an over-the-top action flick disguising itself as a horror/sci-fi movie, with loads of fun gore effects, a groaner of a script, and a cast of genre favorites hamming it up and having a ball doing it. The Blu-ray presentation is a bit of a mixed bag, with a really nice video transfer being offset by a pedestrian audio mix and lackluster extras. Still, Carpenter fans will want this one in their collection.