Fans of Roger Corman’s visionary low-budget camp, rejoice. John Carpenter (“”Escape from New York””), taking a page directly from the legendary schlock-meister’s book, has crafted a woeful sci-fi/horror stinker on a shoestring budget that foregoes rational thought and an acceptable plot simply because his story takes place on a neighboring planet in the distant future. Except Carpenter’s “”Ghosts of Mars”” would have felt dated even in the ’60s. And if he wasn’t going for homage, you have to wonder why he made this film at all.
It’s the year 2176, and the red planet of Mars is colonized and policed by Earth’s citizens. The planet exists as a denizen for criminals and gang members – kind of like Carpenter’s futuristic vision of Manhattan island, but a lot bigger.Helena (Pam Grier) leads her team of officers on a mission to the colony of Shining Canyon to pick up the vicious criminal known as “”Desolation”” Williams (Ice Cube) for transport. As expected, Helena’s group is packed to the gills with stereotypical personalities. Melanie (Natasha Henstridge) is the fiercely independent butch beauty, and Jericho (Jason Statham) the gravel-voiced pig who never stops trying to get in her jumpsuit. Two rookies tag along, though their only purpose is to point their guns and die horrible deaths when the script calls for it.The team isn’t in Shining Canyon two minutes before they realize something’s not right. They discover that the colony’s entire population has been massacred, decapitated and hung upside down by their ankles. Only the prisoners have been spared, and one of them, a doctor, can identify what’s behind the slaughter. She explains that, for reasons unknown, a harmful organism that seeps into the soil and stews has been released, and now jumps from human host to human host – carried by the wind, no less – destroying the person from the inside. The infected specimens, now zombies, dig at their own flesh and carve bizarre tribal symbols into their own bodies. The army of the diseased resemble rejects from the set of George Miller’s “”The Road Warrior”” who have joined a cult of Marilyn Manson worshipers. It’s horrific. And if that’s not enough, these beastly beings also harbor a strong desire to destroy anyone or anything they consider to be an outsider, and that includes Helena and her team. Lucky for Grier, she kicks it relatively early. Her agent must have fought hard for that stipulation in her contract. That leaves unlikely allies Henstridge and Ice Cube to blast their way out of the camp – really just an laughable set of model miniatures that look faker than Tori Spelling’s nose – and onto a train heading for safety.””Mars”” substitutes a body count for a brain, and sets it all to a numbingly cyclic techno soundtrack with music by Buckethead, Anthrax and Carpenter himself. If nothing else, it explains where those rogue party-crashers from John Hughes’ “”Weird Science”” came from. I’ve always wanted to know thatAs bad as it is, though, there’s no way “”Mars”” won’t turn a profit. Carpenter saved a spaceship full of dough by hiring third-rate talent like Henstridge, Grier and Cube. And he certainly didn’t spend a dime on special effects, sets, costumes or a screenplay. “”Mars”” feels like it was shot by teenagers on a three-day binge in Arizona. I kept looking for the silhouettes of Joel, Tom Servo and Crow from the dearly-departed “”MST3K”” to appear in the bottom right corner of the screen. Not that we need them. The film’s clunky dialogue gives us more than enough to laugh at. Grade: D-By Sean O’ConnellAug. 24, 2001