Ghosts of Mars (UK - BD)
Chris Gould takes a look at one of the lesser films in the maestro's catalogue
In the year 2176, mankind has colonised Mars for the purpose of mining its valuable resources. Law is enforced by the Mars Police Force, which has a tough time maintaining order on the inhospitable world. One of their biggest problems is the notorious criminal James ‘Desolation’ Williams (Ice Cube), who has recently been arrested on suspicion of murder and is currently awaiting transportation from the remote outpost of Shining Canyon to the capital city of Chryse. The task of retrieving Williams falls to veteran officer Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) and her squad, which includes the rookie Bashira Kincaid (Clea Duvall), cocksure braggart Sgt. Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), reliable grunt Michael Descanso (Liam Waite) and Braddock's second-in-command, the tough, no-nonsense Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge).
Upon their arrival at Shining Canyon they find the town completely deserted. After exploring the nearby buildings they stumble upon the mutilated corpses of some of the miners—who have been strung up from the ceiling and beheaded—and a small group of survivors holed up in the local jail along with Williams. One of the survivors, Dr. Arlene Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), tells of a mining operation that uncovered an ancient Martian burial site, and how she unwittingly unleashed the vengeful spirits of the planet’s long-extinct inhabitants. These ‘ghosts of Mars’ subsequently possessed many of the miners and savagely killed those that remained, and now they’ve made their way to Shining Canyon. When Braddock is killed, Ballard assumes control of the mission and makes the hard choice to team up with Williams and his convict posse in order to defend against the marauding Martians and survive long enough to warn her superiors of the impending threat.
I’ve never owned a DVD release of Ghosts of Mars, but comparing the 2.35:1 (1080/24p AVC) transfer to a recent cable broadcast reveals significant improvements. For one thing, colour rendition is markedly better thanks to the superior compression afforded by Blu-ray’s sizeable capacity. The colour bleeding that plagued the broadcast version is notable by its absence, with the reds of the ‘Martian’ landscape looking rock solid throughout. The palette consists primarily of earthen tones, which gives the film a dirty, gritty appearance, accounting for the ever-so-slightly unrealistic colours.
Whilst the prevalent colour is red, the dominant shade is black, be that the dark reaches of space or the never-ending Martian skyline itself. The black levels are very stable and shadow detail remains good throughout. Image detail is also leaps and bounds ahead of the cable broadcast, with none of that ugly macroblocking nonsense. Although the image isn’t as sharp as the average modern feature, it is still far more detailed than I expected from such a low-budget catalogue title and I was actually quite impressed.
The disc includes a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that packs more of a wallop than you might expect. Of course it’s not a patch on even the most pedestrian big-budget blockbuster, but it’s still an aggressive track that makes good use of all five channels to immerse the viewer in the events of the film.There are plenty of ambient effects right from the get-go and Carpenter’s heavy metal score has a strong presence in the mix. Dialogue is always intelligible—except when it’s not meant to be—but in this case I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse (Jason Statham’s accent—oh dear Lord). The biggest letdown is the LFE channel, which never really makes its presence known, even during the numerous explosions. The overall volume of the track is quite a bit higher than a lot of the TrueHD tracks I've heard, which surprised me as I've become accustomed to adjusting my amp's volume to compensate for the lower levels. As with the video, this is a fairly respectable effort when you consider the film's humble origins.
Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge :The main—no, make that only—reason I wanted to review this disc was so that I could listen to the commentary track. Carpenter has long been one of my favourite commentators thanks to his fantastic chat-tracks with Kurt Russell (and indeed Roddy Piper and Peter Jason), so I couldn’t pass up the chance to hear what he and Natasha Henstridge had to say about the film. The track is yet another free-flowing affair, with some good-natured banter an plenty of anecdotal information about all aspects of the shoot. Carpenter and Henstridge are both a bit on the cheeky side, which adds a bit of edge to the track, but it's all done in good fun and makes for a fairly enjoyable experience (even if they do think the film is better than it is).
Video Diary: Red Desert Nights (16:59 SD): Although initially buoyed by the running time, I quickly realised that this featurette was a bit of a lame duck. It's basically quarter of an hour's worth of hand-held camera footage of the on-set shenanigans, but without any narration or interviews to give context to the events that are being depicted.
Special Effects Deconstruction (06:33 SD): Again, this sounded fairly promising, but turned out to be most disappointing. It's basically just a series of storyboards, matte paintings, models and green screen sessions set to the film's score. There's no explanation as to how any of the effects were accomplished or any discussion with the SFX guys.
Scoring Ghosts of Mars (06:24 SD): This short featurette goes behind-the-scenes at the recording session with John Carpenter, the thrash band Anthrax, and various guest musicians. Although there's no interview footage, we do at least get to hear the guys chatting about the various takes and such and it's probably worth watching for the Steve Vai footage alone.
Trailers (HD): There are six trailers on the disc, including Blu-ray Disc is High Definition!, Resident Evil: Degeneration, Pineapple Express, Hancock, Lakeview Terrace and Quarantine. Unlike the rest of the features, they are presented in HD.
BD-Live: Sony's usual collection of trailers and the like can be found online, but there's nothing specific to Ghosts of Mars at this time.
As an honest-to-God fan of John Carpenter’s work, I was extremely disappointed by Ghosts of Mars. This review marked the first time I’d ever seen the entirety of the film in one sitting and I have to say that it will, sadly, almost certainly be the last. Although the idea is an interesting one the execution leaves much to be desired, as does the acting, the effects and, well, pretty much everything else. I think it's fair to say that Ghosts of Mars is a career-low for the once great master of horror.
As for the Blu-ray, well it's a fairly middle of the road catalogue release. The audio-visual elements are good, but not outstanding, and apart from the commentary the extras are uninspiring. In fact, it's almost preferable to watch the film with the commentary on, rather than listen to the film's original audio (hence the rather generous score for the extras). I'm afraid this one is for die-hard Carpenter completists only.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Additionally, at this time we do not know the actual release date for the Blu-ray.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 19th October 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 German, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Italian
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, English SDH, Finnish, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Turkish
Extras: Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge, Video Diary: Red Desert Nights, Special Effects Deconstruction, Scoring Ghosts of Mars, Trailers, BD-Live
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Ice Cube, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Peter Jason
Genre: Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 98 minutes
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