Cowboys and Martians

John Carpenter stages a spooky showdown on the Red Planet.

Cube plays cold-as-ice "Desolation" Williams.
Cube plays cold-as-ice "Desolation" Williams.
Not unlike Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich -- who, with ridiculously expensive spectaculars like Independence Day and Godzilla, transformed B-movie nostalgia into crass adventures in budget-busting -- John Carpenter has a thing for the fanciful yet almost lurid trappings of the Saturday afternoon sci-fi flick. Fortunately for us, the veteran director also knows better than to glorify genre schlock with excessive gloss, preferring to meet it halfway and revel in its dark mysteries, its strident nonsense, and its occasional tackiness.

While it doesn't quite achieve the shock power or epic scope of his 1982 remake of The Thing, Ghosts of Mars is another strong outing for Carpenter: a B-movie that knows its place, delivers its goods, then gets the hell out of our face. As it takes its cues from his catalog of hits (John Carpenter's Vampires, In the Mouth of Madness) and misses (Prince of Darkness), those familiar with Carpenter's canon of supernatural thrillers will find little that's new here, but most will take comfort that the guy's a master at this game. There's blood, bugaboos, quasi-spiritual symbolism, and off we go.

The setting is a partially colonized Mars, 175 years from now. Following the examples of countless postapocalyptic stories, Earth has become dangerously overpopulated, so we arrive upon a Mars already populated by hundreds of thousands of wayward humans, scattered throughout the red dust. While desperate terraforming operations are under way, mining operations are also sucking resources from the planet, as humans are wont to do.

But there's a glitch. A cool, armored freight train straight out of a LucasArts video game has returned to one of the larger outposts bearing only one passenger, Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who has been handcuffed to a bunk during assorted kerfuffles and left unconscious. When she is summoned to appear before a civil council to explain what went down, we -- like the ladies of the court -- get Ballard's story. Perhaps as a rebuttal to a decade of Men Are From Mars . . . crap, Carpenter and co-writer Larry Sulkis have fashioned the government of Mars as a "matronage," suggesting that the god of war isn't choosy about gender. As we learn from Ballard's kick-ass recounting, this couldn't be more accurate.

At the center of the tale is a vicious criminal named James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube), who, like Ballard, enjoys kicking the odd ass once in a while. Locked up after allegedly harassing some settlers to death, Desolation is being held in a scary mining camp called Shining Canyon until Ballard and her crew can come and collect him. On board for the mission are Commander Braddock (Pam Grier), who's not so good at concealing her hots for Ballard; Bashira (Clea DuVall), who's new to the force but willing to learn; Descanso (Liam Waite), who is essentially a red shirt waiting to be annihilated in a flashy special effect; and Jericho (Jason Statham), who apparently has seen the Species films and would like firsthand knowledge of their star.

Naturally, when these macho wackos arrive at Shining Canyon, the place is nothing but a ghost town -- a crimson, vacant cross between Carpenter's claustrophobia-inducing Thing realm and what appear to be some wonderfully fakey-looking sets borrowed from Dr. Who. As the ripping soundtrack alternates between Carpenter's MIDI doodlings and what seems to be a scratched Megadeth CD, our intrepid semiheroes delve into the camp, discover mutilated corpses aplenty, and more!

While it wouldn't be fair to give away the whole enchilada (the trailer probably has that covered), it can be said that almost all the problems on the surface of Mars can be blamed on Joanna Cassidy. As Whitlock, a professor of archaeology who can open mysterious tombs filled with terrifying Martian spirits simply by touching them with her hand, Cassidy plays a woman who is -- whoops! -- most likely to bring about the end of humanity on Mars, as the ghosts of long-dead Martians zap themselves into humans via ears, nostrils, and tear ducts, transforming said humans into the average audience at a Rammstein show. They're pierced, they're mutilated, and they wanna hurt people.

All of this would be unbearably silly, were it not for two things. For one, the cast is totally into it, having a ball hacking and blasting each other to death. Ice Cube's resentment as the misunderstood Desolation feels less like scripted dialogue than like a spontaneous improvisation, and Henstridge does her part to uphold the charming novelty of girls running around, kicking ass all the time. The dialogue is almost uproariously bad, but as sci-fi cheese-o-rama, it's the best thing out there this summer.

Ghosts of Mars is rife with silliness, such as the flashbacks within flashbacks of characters who were not with one another at the time, and occasional unintentional laughs -- but it's also a good, raucous kick in the behind, which is literally all it aspires to be.