More than just a pulp-for-pulp’s-sake statement, Ghosts of Mars poses a battery of questions: How does John Carpenter get his new movies made when it’s been well over a decade since he’s exhibited the slightest interest in actually finishing them? How does he maintain his brand-name cachet as a beloved American genre auteur despite his record of public offenses (abated, if only at the box office, by the self-cannibalizing sequel Escape From L.A.)? How can a 53-year-old man name his sci-fi action hero Desolation Williams? (“Listen, Desolation, let’s . . . “) Whatever happened to Robert Carradine’s career? Shouldn’t Joanna Cassidy be finding more dignified work at this point? You call that an ending?
Carpenter is the last of a dying breed: a cheesy, puberty-suspended mad scientist making the best of arrested development, modest ambitions, moviemaking impatience, and a headful of Ace-paperback ideas endearing for their mustiness. Even at their worst—and Ghosts of Mars ranks down there with Village of the Damned—any of Carpenter’s films could comfortably fill out a 1970 drive-in double bill. The man evidently mourns the fact that American movies must now stand alone as ticket-worthy events, rather than unpretentious contributions to a frothy evening out for restless teenagers.
Written, directed, and edited with the offhand shoddiness of a day worker thinking about his evening beer, Ghosts of Mars is essentially a gloss on Carpenter’s seminal indie Assault on Precinct 13, but that film’s visual economy has evaporated into sedimentary residue. Set for no particular reason in a matriarchal future (the dyke space cops lament getting a male rookie, etc.), the story involves Martian mining operations unearthing phantoms who possess the workers and turn them into an army of Marilyn Mansons. You’d think a mano a mano grudgematch between a Manson-ish zombie and Ice Cube (as the surly antihero) would be an opportunity Carpenter wouldn’t pass up. (Courtney Love was originally slated for the lead taken by ice sculptrix Natasha Henstridge, suggesting a goth-grunge-hip-hop collision, on cheap sets, with machine guns.) But Carpenter already seemed to be contemplating his next wedge of Limburger. His old-fashioned taste for F/X miniatures is quaint, but his capabilities at assembling dross have withered—the movie often resembles the George Kennedy space opera on the editing table in Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance. All the same, Ghosts of Mars might have been easy to love from an old sedan’s backseat.
Likewise, the new Freddie Prinze Jr. gruel, Summer Catch, can only be enjoyed with a skullful of Old Bohemian and a faceful of high school crotch. In this round, Freddie is a blue-collar Cape Cod wonder boy trying his best to impress pro scouts in the amateur baseball league while wooing toothy blueblood Jessica Biel. Depending wholly upon the blinkered empathy of daydreamy teen viewers, a typical FPJ movie skims over character, plot, and dialogue, so Summer Catch‘s guest game-announcer, Curt Gowdy, essentially recites the story that’s presumably been going on between song interludes. Dramatic conflicts are implied; when asked about the puzzling bug up his ass, Prinze just whines, “Nothing . . . old friends, new friends . . . ” Even the pounding Samuel Adams placements are clichés.