October 12, 2010

Ghosts of Mars

Another guest post from our esteemed correspondent Patrick. Enjoy!

Mars in the 22nd century. A police squad led by Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) and her second.in-command Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) travels to an isolated mining town to pick up the infamous criminal Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). Since the story is bookended by an inquisitory tribunal (presided over by Rosemary Forsyth), the audience knows something went wrong. And it did: By accident, ancient Martian souls (yes, really) got released and possessed the miners, who turned into bloodthirsty savages intent on killing everybody else. And what's more, if you killed the possessed miner, the "ghost" went airborne to possess another victim. The police unit, a couple of prisoners, and some criminals intent to spring Desolation Jones from jail had to work together to survive. And the story of that fight for survival is Ballard's testimony and our film.

Ghosts of Mars is as diverse as they come. Aside from Braddock and Ballard, the police unit is composed of Clea DuVall, Liam Waite and Jason Statham before he was famous. Later additions to the cast include Joanna Cassidy as the mysterious scientist Whitlock, Wanda De Jesus as a prisoner, and Duane Davis, Lobo Sebastian and Rodney A. Grant as Jones's gang Uno, Dos, and Tres. There are a lot of women in the cast, as well as several black actors and actresses, even a Native American actor (Grant) and an actor of Mexican descent (Sebastian; I assume his descent as I couldn't find anything definite on the net).

And if that sounds promising, it's time for some words of caution. Most of the characters don't get much of a motivation, and no character has an arc to speak of. Ballard, aside from being able to defeat even much larger guys in hand-to-hand combat, is saddled with a drug addiction that her superiors and her colleagues know and don't seem to care about. For some reason, the drug makes her immune to possession, but it doesn't inform her character otherwise. Ballard doesn't grow or change through the course of the film, and neither does anyone else. All they get to do is shoot a lot of savages.

The rest of the cast is clearly secondary. Grier is killed off-screen (we see her severed head on a stick), and we only learn that Uno is Jones's brother after he is killed. Dos has a strange scene where he is high on drugs and cuts off his own thumb.

The thing is, Ghosts of Mars is just not very good. It is neither tense despite its similarities to a horror film, nor does it have exciting action sequences. There's a lot of flat acting, most of all by Joanna Cassidy, who is supposed to portray a conflicted character, but just comes off as bored. The set design, the editing - this film is sadly no comparison to John Carpenter's great films in the 1980s.

There is a scene in the beginning where the idea of a matriarchy (Mars has a matriachical society) is interpreted as being like a patriarchy, only with women. By which I mean there's sexism and harrassment. Commander Braddock says regarding the new Sergeant played by Statham, "I was hoping we'd get a good solid woman we can count on."

Braddock also hits on drugged Ballard, touching her arm, "I need you straight, Melanie." Henstridge responds, "Don't worry, I'm as straight as they come." Statham's character asks her about it (before beginning a long series of inappropriate comments himself), and Ballard tells him, "You know how the service is, Sergeant. If I want to make captain I have to pay the price." So, sexual harassment is alive and well in the 22nd century. Just that women have to look out not for men, but predatory lesbians. In a way, despite living in a matriarchical society, women are still the prey.

I almost missed another role reversal. Not only are the women in charge, but there's a male secretary serving coffee. It's a throwaway scene, and I didn't mind that scene so much partly because of how casually it plays out. So the smaller moment of world-building is alright while the more prominent implications are also more stereoytpical and more clearly based on a male idea of matriarchy.

I mentioned that Statham's character proceeds to make sexual advances towards Ballard, which she repeatedly rebuffs. The scenes made me a little uncomfortable, especially when Statham traps Ballard in a room with him. For a moment it seems that he'll try and rape her, but the implication is also that Ballard would win the fight... and then Ballard kisses him. However, I didn't interpret that as her falling for the harrasser, but more as an affirmation of sexual urges - at that moment, it seems likely everbody's going to die, and I like that Ballard would be okay with casual sex in the face of death. As anyone who watched the Transporter series knows: Jason Statham has a great body, so why not give in? However, the film remains chaste, the kiss is all that happens (and I surely can understand if someone came away from that scene more alienated than I was).

In the end, Jones and Ballard learn to trust and rely on each other and fight off the Ghosts of Mars. It boggles the mind that they decide to survive by killing everybody, which only releases the ghosts and makes themselves susceptible to being possessed, but thinking is not the strong part of the script, anyway. There's more than one decapitation, and then, only these two remain standing to fight another day.

As I said, it's not a very good film. But it is a film with a lot of characters kicking ass who normally don't get to kick so much ass, and Natasha Henstridge taking on a guy twice her size until he admits that she is in charge is its own kind of pleasure, as is seeing a large cast full of non-white and non-male faces. If you can overlook that their solution to a threat that goes invisible and airborne after being shot is shooting it, then maybe you can enjoy the film for what it is, which is a heck of a strong entry for Heroine Content. Based on character diversity alone, this would be four stars, but the film is just not good enough to recommend it that heartily.

3 Stars - Strong Contenders.

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