Throwback on the Red Planet

John Carpenter managed to combine bizarro ‘70s exploitation and blaxsploitation together in this goofy space flick. Scenes of suggested lesbianism aboard a lonely train eventually join scenes of Ice Cube brandishing a shotgun in a leather jacket, imprisoned near a dominatrix, fighting off possessed Martians. What a completely off-the-wall idea this is.

There’s a sense of western tropes mixing in too. The empty town, the lawmen, the outlaw, the train, the mine, the exploited workers; Ghosts of Mars chews on a number of spaghetti western novelties. Instead of 1890, it’s 2197. And, instead of say, Montana, it’s Mars.

There’s a police state, headed by Pam Grier, Natasha Henstridge, and Jason Statham. Dumped into a Martian ghetto, the police’s mere presence is enough to cause an imbalance, inciting a turf war as they try and complete their snatch-and-grab mission. Ice Cube becomes the black anti-hero, fighting against the oppressive white establishment, and pairing with Henstridge whose drug addiction lessens her authoritarian demeanor, allowing a truce through understanding.

A few cruddy lines of dialog and muddy gore do not a horror comedy make

Although cliché, Ice Cube is the most interesting thing in this movie, with the name Desolation Williams, as a perfect a blaxsploitation title as possible. He distrusts cops and lives by some manner of code (“I never killed anybody”), seeking freedom in a Martian society that turned him criminal. He’s outcast-cool, hardened, but willing to find middle ground.

Shooting exteriors at night, sets take on a hopeless, bleak look, dotted with reds expected of the planet. Ghosts of Mars surrounds itself with nothingness. That’s intimidating, if not executed with the intended cruelty. Ghosts of Mars doesn’t celebrate the kitschy material with any humor. A few cruddy lines of dialog and muddy gore do not a horror comedy make. Neither is the genre mash-up pulled into full view – it’s lingering, waiting to be found.

The tragedy of Ghosts of Mars is in never finding that identity. With its blaring metal soundtrack and digital violence, the contemporary bite overtakes any allusions of this being a pure throwback. Messy editing renders action incomprehensible, and drawn out story beats destroy the framework.

Ghosts of Mars catches on subtext, extrapolating the barest of us-versus-them, white-versus-black, rich-versus-poor themes. Those rebellious, post-Vietnam exploitation curiosities did that too, if with significantly more force. It’s as if Carpenter and crew restrained themselves, unwilling to invest in total. What’s left is an oddity, a barely coherent jumble, assembled haphazardly, with only Ice Cube’s camera mugging to save it.


Mill Creek’s issue of this early 2000s effort is a passable HD affair. Notably, the image looks recently scanned, with appreciable resolution evident in close. Facial definition creates consistent eye candy. Various sets remain sharp and defined.

When away from vivid reds, flesh tones display with bright, elevated hues. While unnatural, that fits Ghost of Mars’ otherworldly aesthetic. A few shots look lit by gel lighting, casting purple, yellow, and other discordant colors onto the stage. Those look fantastic.

Compression is the main suspect element. Grain embeds in the image, but the wealth of glossy reds poses a hearty challenge to this encode. Expect blocking and banding to appear regularly. Elevated noise drift into lighter shadows. The issue lies in how little this looks like film.

Black levels fall into crush too, although cinematography skews dark. Moments not on the night-clad surface display natural depth and image density, leaving the worst of these issues outside.


DTS-HD provides this 5.1 soundstage, at times aggressive, if missing a tight low-end. Bass comes through muddy and lean, lacking punch. That goes for explosions, gunfire, and whatever else action necessitates.

While surrounds tend to become lost with the blaring electric guitars on the soundtrack, when allowed, gunfire spreads into specific channels. Major shoot-outs send bullets through to positional speakers. In downtime, ambiance spreads, especially with eerie winds. The various “ghosts” howl as they hunt for a victim.


John Carpenter joins Natasha Henstridge for a commentary track, that followed by 17-minutes of raw set footage under the label of a video diary. It’s great. In Scoring Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter and Anthrax jam together in recording sessions, also all raw footage. A little over six minutes of special effects deconstructions put the various pieces together in a concise manner.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Ghosts of Mars
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Ice Cube fends off possessed Martians in John Carpenter’s oddball Ghosts of Mars, a mix of ’70s exploitation and spaghetti westerns

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