I don't know what to make of this film. On the one hand it's stylishly directed, with neat minimalist sets; on the other it's so campily written and acted that I thought it might be satire. Maybe the way to approach it is as knowing trash. Pam Grier plays a butch lesbian, while Ice Cube's an inner city hood transplanted to Mars; both characters are walking cliches who'd have been at home in exploitation films. What's strange is that there's no sex and the gore is quick cut. John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars feels poised between intensity and sleaze. If it had picked an approach it may have worked, but as it is it's a jarring mess; deftly paced, but lacking tone.
The film, which takes place entirely on Mars, starts with policewoman Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) being found handcuffed in a train, alone. The main story's then told through flashbacks as she recalls to a council what happened. Her team, led by Helena Bradock (Grier) and including Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall) and Nathan Jericho (Jason Statham), was assigned to escort prisoner "Desolation" Williams (Cube) from a remote outpost. When they arrive, however, the outpost's empty and strange creatures stalk them.
The storytelling's inept. Expository flashbacks to events we've already witnessed are dotted throughout the first half, as if Carpenter's writing a detective story. Too many characters pop up, so ones who seem like they should be developed are left flat. The supernatural threat's treated arbitrarily. A doctor played by Joanna Cassidy gives a theory as to what it is, and more suspense would have emerged if the film had said no more, but later she gets a flashback of her own which just confuses things.
What Ghosts of Mars does best is action, set design and special effects. The outpost is shown via squat, semi-underground buildings against a starless sky. It's not a thousand miles away in effect from The Thing's Antarctic base. That's partly what makes the film suspenseful despite its campiness. The action has a video game feel to it and is staged well. A battle between humans and creatures is great fun to watch. The creatures themselves look good, and Henstridge has a haunting dream sequence. Ghosts of Mars is like the trashiest pulp comic; insubstantial rubbish, but enjoyable.