Film / Ghosts of Mars

Ghosts of Mars is a 2001 sci-fi/action/horror film directed by John Carpenter.

It's 2176 and Mars has been terraformed to have a breathable atmosphere by some matriarchal mining corporation. A crack-squad of Space Police consisting of Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), Bashira Kincaid (Clea Duvall) and Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) is sent to reallocate notorious criminal James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube), only to discover that half the colony has been possessed by the spirits of the alien race that used to inhabit Mars which were released via a scientific excavation, causing them to transform into a clan of sadomasochistic self-mutilating punk savages that look as if they're auditioning as extras for The Road Warrior and which murdered the other half. The rest of the movie is spent fighting them off.

This film provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Melanie Ballard and Bashira Kincaid
  • Artistic License Nuclear Physics: An exploding nuclear reactor.
  • Awesome McCool Name: "Desolation" Williams, Jericho.
  • Angrish: Possessed humans speak exclusively in this.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Melanie escapes with only some "superficial injuries", consisting of one tiny scratch on her neck.
  • Big Bad: Big Daddy Mars.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Braddock is the first person to die in the movie.
  • Butch Lesbian: Helena.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Jericho has almost preternatural skill with locks. This comes in handy when the team has to break into the nuclear power plant and blow it up at the climax.
  • Demonic Possession: Which makes killing the crazy people a bad idea. Not only will the evil spirit possessing them escape — it might relocate into you.
  • Deadpan Snarker: After the inquest, the head woman says "Is our statement to the cartel going to be that Mars is being overrun by ghosts?" She rolls her eyes so hard they almost get stuck.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: All but two of the main characters are dead before the movie even begins.
  • Downer Ending: Though it's played in a lighthearted way, the end is pretty bleak if you think about it: the wave of possessions has reached the capitol city of Chryse and the police are called up to fight them. In all the excitement of going to war, everyone seems to have forgotten that there's no effective way of fighting the ghosts or even slowing them down for long, aside from illegal drugs which aren't likely to be in adequate supply.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Subverted; the fact that she's taking "clear" (and was given a dose immediately after being infected) allows Mel to fight off the alien spirit possessing her. Played straight with Dos, who gets high off a nitrous-oxide breather and chops his thumb off.
  • Fetish-Fuel Future: While it's not explored in detail, a black leather-clad Lady Land where hot girl-on-girl action is implied to be a prominent form of career advancement certainly qualifies.
  • Flashback Within a Flashback: The movie opens with the lone survivor of a mission to transport a dangerous prisoner from a mining colony being found by Mars authorities, then she tells what happened to the government council in flashback. During the mission, after splitting up to investigate, one of her comrades suddenly shows up with three survivors from the colony, and he explains how he found them in another flashback. When he asks them what happened to the colony, this triggers another flashback where they explain how they inadvertently dug up the Martian ghosts.
  • Fingore: Dos amputates his own thumb while trying to make a food can grenade. That'll teach him to do drugs and precision work at the same time. Desolation laughs at him for being a dumbass.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The beginning of the movie shows the train arriving back at the capital and Melanie is the only passenger on board, foreshadowing that she's the only perceived survivor of the mission.
  • Ghost Town With A Dark Secret: The mining town.
  • Gorn: Filmed in patented Decapi-Tatio-Vision.
  • Guns Akimbo: Apparently in the future, everyone will be ambidextrous and walleyed.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The guy who locked himself in a truck after being possessed by a Martian kills himself when it becomes clear Melanie isn't going to stop trying to free him. A rather unusual case for the film, as every other case of Martian possession causes the victim to be incapacitated (usually in a trance-like state) until they're either converted or expel the Martian. His choice of venue also has the added effect of trapping the Martian ghost in an airtight container.
  • Hot-Blooded: The Martian leader.
  • Idiot Ball: Multiple people pick this up throughout the film, especially Kincaid, by splitting up and going off on their own, and killing the bodies of the miners, even after they know that killing the host only releases the ghost to possess someone else. Ballard even orders the survivors to go and detonate a nuclear power station as they begin to leave, resulting in everyone but Ballard and Williams being killed, and the ghosts' host bodies being they can then swarm Chryse in the form of a sandstorm.
  • In Medias Res: The film is a recount of events told by Melanie Ballard, which also jumps back to previously seen events to show them from another perspective, to emulate her recollection of events.
  • Invincible Villain: The titular ghosts are just that - intangible ghosts who possess humans to interact with the world. The spirits can't be killed by any known means (they even tried a nuclear detonation, which did nothing), which means that if their host is destroyed they'll just move on to the next body. The movie dances around this issue by setting up the all-out battle to occur after the story's events, but it's impossible to maintain any hope for the surviving characters because victory is ultimately impossible. Then again, Melanie shows us that getting the entire planet high as balls might do the trick. There's also a certain percent of the population that's naturally immune, so attrition might work, too.
  • It's the Only Way to Be Sure: The team decides that the only way to deal with the plague of possessions is to blow up the nuclear power plant and destroy the town. This doesn't go as planned.
  • Lady Land: The human society on Mars is explicitly stated to be a matriarchy, and women are primarily seen in powerful positions. Doesn't stop the men from acting like machos, though.
  • Large Ham: The leader of the punk savages, "Big Daddy Mars."
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Williams charges headlong with both guns blazing into the crowd of punk savages, resulting in the first truly big shootout of the movie. "Come on, you mindless motherfuckers!"
  • Mars: It's right in the title.
  • Matriarchy: Specifically of the "Sexy Matriarchy" variant, which describes the matriarchal society of human colonists in the movie pretty well. While women hold the majority of power, it's mostly a leather-clad Fetish-Fuel Future with dominant lesbian leader figures, and women sleeping their way to the top by getting it on with their superiors is seen as expected. The men are still machos, though.
  • Moment Killer: Jericho manages to talk his way Melanie's pants, but Kincaid ruins the moment by killing the possessed prisoner.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: The Martian aliens are body-hopping spirits. Their only real weakness is that their hosts can be destroyed, stopping them at least temporarily. Some people are naturally immune, and drug use seems to stop them from successfully possessing a host.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Big Daddy Mars looks a lot like Mairlyn Manson.
  • Not Afraid to Die: The preferred method for characters in this movie to short circuit a showdown and demonstrate their own badassery.
    Melanie: [When Desolation is pointing a shotgun at her] Kill me!
    Desolation Williams: [When Melanie is pointing a gun at him] What you gonna do? Fucking shoot me.
  • Nuke 'em: The heroes resolve to dispatch the punk savages by blowing up the local nuclear power plant.
  • Off with His Head!: One of the punks' favorite methods of killing is by decapitation, especially using sharp metal frisbees.
  • The Omniscient Council of Vagueness: The Matronage.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The Martians exist as an indestructible cloud of red gas which can possess most humans. Once possessed, the humans either don't feel pain or are simply badass enough not to care, as they ritually scar themselves before going on a killing spree against the new occupants of the planet.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guys: From Melanie's hallucination, it looks as if the extinct aliens were this.
  • Recycled In Space: It's basically John Carpenter's own Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) ON MARS. Which means that, by extension, it's also Rio Bravo ON MARS.
  • Rule of Cool: What the movie was clearly aiming for.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Helena (Pam Grier, of course).
  • Scary Black Man: James 'Desolation' Williams played by Ice Cube, also his brother Uno.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: The reactor meltdown is stated to take out a mile or two. The resulting explosion is easily visible from space.
  • Screaming Warrior: Big Daddy Mars, the martian leader. A LOT.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The Martian spirits.
  • Shout-Out: When Braddock shouts "Who goes there?", it's a reference to a short story with that title by John W. Campbell, which has been made into a film twice, once by John Carpenter as The Thing (1982).
  • Skewed Priorities: The team is trapped in a ghost town filled with Ax-Crazy possessed humans and, for the moment, they're reasonably well-fortified in the local police station. So naturally, Jericho decides that now is as good a time as any to see if he can seduce Melanie (if one could charitably call it seduction) by leading her to a closet where they won't be interrupted. Surprisingly, this would have worked had Kincaid not gotten trigger-happy at that exact moment.
  • Space Police: Most of the main characters have this occupation.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The team had a possessed man safely locked up in a jail cell. Bashira Kincaid decides to shoot him through the bars because "Fuck him, whatever the fuck he is". She does this despite the fact that it has already been established that killing the possessed only frees the possessing entity, rather than destroying it, thus allowing this particular one to temporarily possess Melanie.
  • Traintop Battle: The finale.
  • Unreliable Voiceover: Melanie isn't entirely honest in her recollection of events, understandably so since she's a drug addict and at an inquest concerning the fact that she failed to do her job properly. Most of what she says is true but she lied about being asleep when Desolation Williams made his escape. She also omits her drug use consistently.