Ghosts of Mars

Oct. 04, 2001

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

If youre lining up at the box office for "Ghosts of Mars," be advised that this film has about as much to do with the Red Planet as "Jurassic Park" has to do with Central America. Which is to say, very little.

John Carpenters newest helping of plex fodder is an adventure film that can be described with dismaying accuracy as "The Curse of the Mummy on Mars." The action (and theres plenty) takes place on a nearly terraformed Mars two centuries hence. Its 2176 a.d., and Mars seems to be firmly in human hands, but a "mummys curse" is still hanging around, waiting to get its shot at these invaders from Earth. "Mars for the Martians" is the understandable motivation for what follows.

Does this idea make sense? Well, it might if there really are Martians. Even microbes living in the underground aquifers thought to exist on Mars could prove nasty to earthly biology. But its rather more likely that the Martians biochemistry would be sufficiently different from our own that they wouldnt cause heartburn even if you ate them for dinner. Still, the very possibility that martian life could wreak havoc on arrogant earthlings who take over their home turf is an intriguing thought. Unfortunately, its not given much logical basis in Carpenters film. Thats a missed opportunity.

Instead, were treated to only a nebulous enemy, and a lot of slice-and-dice mutilation choreographed like a Michael Jackson video. The only normal activity we witness on this conquered world is mining. (It occurs to me that mining is the principal economic activity in a whole lot of space opera. Perhaps NASA should be playing up other types of spin-off from planetary exploration.) Mining, even in the 22nd century, seems to attract a lot of sweaty, violence-prone low-lifes, which is a good thing for the plot. After all, action-adventure movies seldom need software engineers or tax accountants. The hero and heroine in this film are respectively a suspected murderer and a substance abuser. The final frontier has gone gangsta.

Theyre not gentle people, and the result is "Halloween" on Mars. But at least you see Mars, right? Well, no, not very well. Its true that the entire movie takes place on the Red Planet (adequately played by New Mexico), but thanks to a plague of dust storms and a dramatic, nighttime setting, you never get a very good view of this nearby world. What you occasionally do see of the local terrain is completely devoid of vegetation, which is a little surprising given the breath ability of the atmosphere. But maybe the shrubbery is all in the other hemisphere.

The technology in the mines and everywhere else is both grungy and primitive, in yet one more rebuke of the squeaky white plastic look established in "2001." However, careful viewers will note that the electronics is 1950s vintage. It seems as if the set designers cleaned out the local surplus store, and then sprayed their bounty with a lot of black paint. I even espied an old Tektronix oscilloscope from the 1960s decorating one wall, and wondered where Martian repair technicians were going to get replacement tubes. This is about as believable as visiting your local power plant and finding all the control hardware dating from George Washingtons time. Retro has its limits. Or should.

But hey, this film isnt about technology. Or science. Its just one more kowtow to a well-established mantra of sci-fi cinema: "there are some things mankind was not meant to know." Disturbing ancient Egyptian tombs was once believed to provoke a lethal response. Colonizing Mars, according to Carpenter, might do the same.

But dont worry. This isnt a modern, politically correct western. The invaders are unrepentant and locals should take note. "This is about dominion," our heroes bellow as they stomp off to kick martian butt and treat the final frontier to some real frontier justice.

Its manifest destiny on the plains of Mars. The local extraterrestrials had better get out of the way.