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Film / Ghosts of Mars

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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 relocate 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. The rest of the movie is spent fighting them off.

This film provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: The Martian savages' blades slice off limbs and heads like they're made of paper.
  • Action Girl: Melanie Ballard and Bashira Kincaid
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: In the climax, a nuclear reactor is sabotaged to turn it into a nuclear bomb.
  • 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 and a gash on her leg that needed stitches.
  • Big Bad: Big Daddy Mars.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Braddock is the first person to die in the movie.
  • Blown Across the Room: Anytime anyone gets shot.
  • 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.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Jericho runs across a field of the requisite severed heads on spikes.
  • 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.
  • Dull Surprise: Hoo boy, damn near everyone reacts to the gruesome violence and bodily injury inflicted on each other and themselves like they maybe smell someone farted in the room but don't want to be rude by pointing it out.
  • 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.
  • Dwindling Party: While Braddock and Descanso are axed off by the miners, Ballard is solely responsible for unintentionally causing the deaths of the rest of her teammates.
  • Evil Overlooker: The poster above has Big Daddy Mars looming over the main cast with his hands about to grab them.
  • 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.
  • Fighting a Shadow: The evil Martian ghosts are intangible. While they're not very fast and can't travel through solid objects, they're also pretty much indestructible. Although it's possible to resist possession, destroying their current host body only delays them. The heroes actually attempt the Nuclear Option, which is ultimately proven to be an inadequate solution.
  • 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.
  • Gay Guy Dies First: Braddock again, a Butch Lesbian and the first named casualty in the movie.
  • Genre Mashup: Combines aspects of a cop movie with Westerns and Zombie movies. And the whole thing takes place in space.
  • 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. While the spirits can't travel through solid objects and also seem to be unable to exit a restrained host voluntarily, they also 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. Presumably the men are Compensating for Something.
  • 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!"
  • Made of Plasticine: Doesn't matter how slowly the metal death-frisbees are going, people get shredded into chunks like wet cheese.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: A dude gets his arm sliced off by the savages' war frisbees at one point, takes it like he just got slapped with a rubber glove and just casually starts firing his pistol in the other hand until another frisbee-o-doom takes off his head, too.
  • 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 into Melanie's pants, but Kincaid ruins the moment by killing the possessed prisoner.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Melanie, who spends the last 4 minutes of the movie waking up and walking around in a tight, sleeveless vest and matching gray panties (size small, of course).
  • 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.
  • Plague Zombie: Not technically referred to as zombies, but the possessed humans heavily resemble zombies in their gaunt, blood-covered appearance, shambling movements, and mindlessness. This state is caused by an ancient alien race, compared to spores, that travels through the air and can move from person to person if their host is killed.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: 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.
  • Sleeping Their Way to the Top: In the Lady Land society on Mars, it's apparently pretty common for women to seduce their own female superiors for the purposes of career advancement.
  • Space Police: Most of the main characters have this occupation.
  • Technically-Living Zombie: While the possessed humans aren't referred to as zombies, they basically act like mindless corpses bent only on killing, and their gaunt, blood-covered looks and shambling demeanor heavily resemble zombies. And of course, they're still living humans possessed by the Martian spirits.
  • 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.
    • Bashira again, who ducks under the savages' razor-death-frisbees only to stand right back up again directly in their line of fire. Unsurprisingly, she gets decapitated.
  • Traintop Battle: The finale.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Black lesbian Helena Braddock, and appropriately, she dies.
  • 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.
  • Vasquez Always Dies: There are three Action Girls in a uni-sex team sent to retrieve a dangerous criminal. The toughest one, a butch middle-aged woman, is killed off first, and then followed by the boyish-looking one. The sole survivor is the drop-dead gorgeous Natasha Henstridge. All the men are killed off as well, save for the aforementioned criminal.
  • White Bread and Black Brotha: In the second half of the film, the straightlaced Melanie teams up with the wisecracking Desolation Williams to kick ass and fight Martian zombies.