Set in the second half of the 22nd century, Mars has been 84% terraformed, allowing humans to walk on the surface without pressure suits. Martian society has become matriarchal, with women in most positions of authority. The story concerns police officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who is sent to a remote mining outpost to transport prisoner Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). Arriving at the remote mining town, Ballard finds all of the people missing. She learns that they had discovered an underground doorway created by an ancient Martian civilization. When the door was opened it released disembodied spirits or "ghosts", which took possession of the miners.
The possessed miners commit horrific acts of death and destruction, along with self-mutilation. When team leader Helena Bradock (Pam Grier) is murdered, Ballard must assume command, fight off the possessed miners, escape the town and hopefully destroy the ghosts. Unfortunately, killing a possessed human merely releases the Martian spirit to possess another human. The team eventually decides to blow up a nuclear reactor to vaporize all of the ghosts.
Ballard's crew, along with survivors who gathered in the jail, are eventually wiped out by the miners. At one point, Ballard is nearly possessed, but resists when she is given a drug and discovers that the spirits are attacking them as they believe that the humans are invaders and plan to exterminate the humans on Mars (it is presumed that the spirits are unaware of the fact that martian life has died out). Only Ballard and Williams are left after Sergeant Jericho and the other officers, along with the two train operators, are killed when they try to finish the fight by causing the settlement's nuclear powerplant to go critical, turning it into a small atomic bomb. Not wanting to be blamed for the massacre, Williams handcuffs Ballard to her cot and escapes from the train. Returning home, Ballard delivers her report, which her superiors refuse to believe. While Ballard recuperates in the hospital, the released spirits, unharmed from the nuclear explosion, attack the city. Ballard and Williams are going to fight to stay alive.Ice Cube as James 'Desolation' Williams
Natasha Henstridge as Lieutenant Melanie Ballard
Jason Statham as Jericho Butler
Clea DuVall as Bashira Kincaid
Pam Grier as Commander Helena Braddock
Joanna Cassidy as Dr. Arlene Whitlock
Richard Cetrone as Big Daddy Mars
Liam Waite as Michael Descanso
Duane Davis as Uno
Lobo Sebastian as Dos
Rodney A. Grant as Tres
Peter Jason as McSimms
Wanda De Jesus as Akooshay
Robert Carradine as Rodal
The script originally started off as a potential Snake Plissken sequel. Entitled Escape from Mars, the story would have been largely much the same; however, after Escape from L.A. failed to make much money at the box office, the studio did not wish to make another Plissken movie. Snake Plissken was then changed to "Desolation Williams," and the studio also insisted that Ice Cube be given the part.
Michelle Yeoh, Franka Potente and Famke Janssen were the first choices for the role of Melanie Ballard, but they turned it down. Courtney Love was originally cast, but she left the project after her then-boyfriend's ex-wife ran over her foot in her car while she was in training for the picture. Natasha Henstridge replaced her by the suggestion of her then-boyfriend Liam Waite. Jason Statham was originally going to play Desolation Williams, but he was replaced by Ice Cube because the producers needed some star power for the part, and Statham instead played the character of Jericho Butler.
Although Mars has a day/night cycle almost identical in length to Earth's, most of the film is set at night. Mars is shown only once in the daytime, in a flashback when a scientist describes how she found and opened a "Pandora's Box," unleashing the alien spirits.
Production had to be shut down for a week when Henstridge fell ill due to extreme exhaustion, as she had just done two other films back-to-back before joining production at the last moment.
Much of the film was shot in a New Mexican gypsum mine. The pure white gypsum had to be dyed with thousands of gallons of biodegradable red food dye to recreate the Martian landscape.
John Carpenter revealed after the movie's failure that he had become burnt out after he had made Ghosts of Mars---and decided to leave Hollywood for good. It would not be until 2010 that he made another full feature film, The Ward.
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 21% based on 103 reviews, with the consensus stating "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is not one of Carpenter's better movies, filled as it is with bad dialogue, bad acting, confusing flashbacks, and scenes that are more campy than scary."
Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of four, writing, "Ghosts of Mars delivers on its chosen level and I enjoyed it, but I wonder why so many science-fiction films turn into extended exercises in Blast the Aliens".
David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, film critics for The Movie Show both awarded the film three stars out of five. In his review, Stratton made the following observation - "John Carpenter doesn't seem to have moved forward from the 70s and early 80s, when he made his best films. Though it's not terribly exciting, Ghosts Of Mars does have a marvellously skewed vision...".
Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic.com suggested that the film was symbolic of 'Carpenter at rock bottom.'
According to press reviews factors contributing to the box office failure of the film included "poor set designs, hammy acting and a poorly developed script".
Ice Cube was very critical about the movie: "I don't like that movie. I'm a big fan of John Carpenter and the only reason I did it was because John Carpenter directed it but they really didn't have the money to pull the special effects off."
The film opened at #9 in the North American box office in its opening weekend (8/24-26) with $3,804,452 and grossed $8,709,640 at the North American domestic box office, and $5,301,192 internationally, totaling $14,010,832 worldwide.
For the film's soundtrack, John Carpenter recorded a number of synthesizer pieces and assembled an all-star cast of guitarists (including thrash metal band Anthrax, virtuoso Steve Vai, genre spanning Buckethead, and former Guns N' Roses/current Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck) to record an energetic and technically proficient heavy metal score. Reaction to the soundtrack was mixed; many critics praised the high standard of musicianship and the strong pairing of heavy metal riffs with the film's action sequences, but complained about the overlong guitar solos, the drastic differences between the cues used in the film and the full tracks and the absence of any of the film's ambient synth score from the soundtrack CD.Track listing
- "Ghosts of Mars" (3:42) – Steve Vai, Bucket Baker & John Carpenter
- "Love Seige [sic]" (4:37) – Buckethead, Robin Finck, John Carpenter & Anthrax (Scott Ian, Paul Crook, Frank Bello & Charlie Benante)
- "Fight Train" (3:16) – Robin Finck, John Carpenter & Anthrax
- "Visions of Earth" (4:08) – Elliot Easton & John Carpenter
- "Slashing Void" (2:46) – Elliot Easton & John Carpenter
- "Kick Ass" (6:06) – Buckethead, John Carpenter & Anthrax
- "Power Station" (4:37) – Robin Finck, John Carpenter & Anthrax
- "Can't Let You Go" (2:18) – Stone (J.J. Garcia, Brian James & Brad Wilson), John Carpenter, Bruce Robb & Joe Robb
- "Dismemberment Blues" (2:53) – Elliot Easton, John Carpenter & Stone
- "Fightin' Mad" (2:41) – Buckethead & John Carpenter
- "Pam Grier's Head" (2:35) – Elliot Easton, John Carpenter & Anthrax
- "Ghost Poppin'" (3:20) – Steve Vai, Robin Finck, John Carpenter & Anthrax