About 40 minutes into “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars,” my watch read 8:16 p.m. The next time I looked at my watch, it read 8:19 p.m.
It was just as well I didn’t know I had another hour to feel the life bleeding out of me. Instead, I cursed the professional responsibility that had me slunk down in my seat when I could have left and gone for a tapioca pearl drink. After all, whatever pretensions to suspense “Ghost of Mars” might have had evaporated in the first 10 minutes.
A lone train on autopilot pulls into a Martian town with a sole occupant, Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) of the Martian Police Force, handcuffed to a post.
One sole occupant. The only survivor of a five-member team sent to retrieve a suspected serial killer. Movie over, lights on, head to the exits and go get that drink.
But no! Mr. Carpenter isn’t done with his wriggling bag of leeches. In the next scene, Ballard appears before a gray tweed-wearing tribunal to tell her story in flashback flashback, because everything is over and done with except for torturing the audience.
Instead of one sustained flashback, Carpenter pointlessly interrupts the story to return to the present proceedings. As if this storytelling technique isn’t agonizingly tedious enough, Carpenter throws in a shifting narrative: Whenever Ballard recounts some other character’s tale, the movie rewinds to whatever point she and the other person were together; then the camera either follows that other person or tells that person’s story in flashback. After the sixth or seventh time, a helpless, remote-control rage takes over.
So what is this bloodsucker of a plot? It’s 2176 A.D. and 640,000 colonists live on Mars, which is 84 percent terraformed. The five cops were on their way to a mining colony to retrieve James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube). When the train pulled into an apparently deserted town, the crew split up, with Ballard and lascivious teammate Jericho (Jason Stratham) checking out the jail.
The first two found blood, a severed arm, scissors sculptures and five prisoners still alive, including Williams. The second party, headed by Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier), found headless corpses strung up on the ceiling of the recreation room same modus operandi as the killings of which Williams is accused.
Anyhow, to make an accursed story short, the miners had kicked up some red dust which penetrates human bodies. The dust, of course, has irked Martians who don’t like to be home-invaded and, frankly, who could blame them? One day someone plants a flag, and the next thing you know it’s strip malls and Starbucks everywhere.
Once the human beings are possessed, they mutilate their own bodies and dress up for a heavy metal concert when they’re not making their barbed wire origami. The Martians don’t possess everyone because then there would be no heads to lop off and impale like marshmallows on a stick. And unlike the matriarchal colonists (a pointless sociological factoid to explain why chicks are in charge), the Martians were led by Alice Cooper, or maybe it’s Marilyn Manson who can tell with all the white makeup, black vinyl and nipple piercings.
But who cares? Ballard is telling a story about colonists being slaughtered by flying circular saws, her commander being beheaded after three minutes of screen time (sorry, Grier fans, but I thought at least I could save you from this) and her teammates biting the red Martian dust and not a trace of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Instead, she mouths off at the proceedings about legal representation until the head matriarch tells her this is only a discovery hearing. Nobody cares when someone dies, a sentiment the audience finds itself sharing.
There are precisely three good moments in this movie, all of which involve Ice Cube, who must be wondering how he got from “Three Kings” into this slogging mess. For the life of me (the little life that has not been bled away), I cannot fathom why Carpenter would want to brand his name to this movie, akin to leaving fingerprints at the scene of a crime. Stay away, stay far away — go for the tapioca pearl drink instead.