John Carpenter has films that are considered classics: Halloween, The Thing, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China. But the films he made after his heyday don’t get nearly enough love. One big example: Ghosts of Mars, which takes The Thing and mushes it into Assault on Precinct 13 — except with way more graphic mutilations.
And those aren’t the only Carpenter films that the director self-references, though they are the most obvious (there’s even a line that echoes the novella that inspired The Thing). Ghosts of Mars begins with some Escape from New York-style exposition, letting us know that it’s the year 2176, and Mars — which is just a decade away from being terraformed into having Earth-like atmosphere — is home to over a half-million souls, many of whom work at rough-and-tumble mining camps spread out around the planet that are connected by a high-speed train.
But there’s been some serious trouble on the Red Planet — with just one survivor, Mars police officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge, giving off Charlize Theron ice-queen/action-hero vibes), still around to tell the tale.
The script specifically points out that Mars is a matriarchal society, and though there’s still plenty of machismo at play — Jason Statham (just a year after his breakout in Snatch plays a fellow officer with designs on Melanie; Ice Cube camps it up as a Mars prison escapee named “Desolation Williams”) — Melanie is very much in charge, especially after the cop commander played by Pam Grier loses her head in act one.
But amid all the weird science that supposes Mars is populated by ancient, vengeful, territorial Thing-style organisms that can travel from host to host; the post-apocalyptic costumes of the afflicted (imagine if the Escape from New York gangs were into masks made of human skin); and the Melanie-and-Desolation Wild West/buddy comedy/spatter-movie hijinks — the most bizarre thing about Ghosts of Mars is its structure.
The entire movie — which is full of dissolves rather than regular edits — takes place in flashback. Then, there are flashbacks within the main flashback, as when a scientist the cops encounter along the way tells how she saw the Mars parasite take over an entire mining town. Then, there are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, as when Statham’s character explains how he came across Desolation’s buddies, and in that flashback they tell him how they escaped from a group of drooling maniacs fond of putting heads on spikes.
It’s exhausting, and the viewer would be forgiven for feeling a bit like Melanie, whose pill-popping habit is what ends up saving her in the end. Is that the best part of Ghosts of Mars? Not even. The very, very best part is that the main Mars villain, who Melanie glimpses in his true form while suffering a drugs vs. Mars organism battle within her brain, is named Big Daddy Mars. He looks like what would happen if Pazuzu went to Burning Man and bought into the culture for a minute before eating everyone:
Big. Daddy. Mars. If that isn’t a perfect B-movie monster, just by virture of being perfectly nutballs, I don’t know what is.