Home > Reviews > GHOSTS OF MARS – John Carpenter

GHOSTS OF MARS – John Carpenter

ghostsofmarsOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

When is a soundtrack not a soundtrack? When it’s a rock album. Or when it’s called John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. In my opinion, the sole purpose of a film soundtrack is to elicit an emotional response from the audience watching the film it accompanies. All other considerations about whether it is considered “good music” are secondary to the fact that its creation is to support a visual image. By saying this, I am almost making myself redundant as a reviewer of soundtrack albums as opposed to scores as heard in the film, but the point I am trying to make is that a good soundtrack album doesn’t necessarily mean that it contains a good score, and vice versa. This album is a case in point.

It’s actually quite sad to see the decline of John Carpenter’s career in recent years. From the heady heights of the late 70s and early 80s, where his output included Assault on Precinct 13, the legendary Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, over the last few years the quality of his movies has been in freefall. Ghosts of Mars may be his nadir: a clueless, derivative space saga which lacks the intelligence, excitement and panache of Carpenter’s earlier work. Set 200 years in the future, the plot – the little that exists – follows the aftermath of a bloody battle on an isolated Mars colony, and the testimony of the two survivors: convicted prisoner Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) and Martian police officer Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge). In flashback, it transpires that Ballard and her colleagues (including Pam Grier, Jason Statham and Clea Duvall) were transporting Williams from the outpost back to civilization when they were are attacked by a gang of Goths led by the vicious Marilyn Manson look-alike, Big Daddy Mars. It turns out that deep excavation work in a nearby mine had unleashed an army of warrior ghosts – spirits of Mars’s original inhabitants – who have possessed the miners and are now trying to reclaim the planet for themselves by eradicating all human life. Cue the violence…

Before I slam this soundtrack any further, let me first say that, as an artist, I admire John Carpenter enormously. Many of his films have rightly gone on to be considered as classics of their genre, and with the exception of The Thing (for which he hired Ennio Morricone) and Starman (which featured a striking score by Jack Nitzsche), most of his scores have been self-composed, either solo or with collaborators such as Shirley Walker, Alan Howarth, Dave Davies and Jim Lang. On Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter treats the score like a jam session, bringing in a multitude of respected rock and metal artists to beef up his synthesized melodies. All well and good, but to me this is not what makes a film score – a film score should be varied, and nuanced, and indicative of scenes and emotions. Ghosts of Mars sounds like a recording of a rock concert.

On the plus side, and as a fan of this kind music in my spare time, I think I know what a good rock instrumental sounds like – and with the talent on display here, I can safely say that some of the guitar and percussion performances here are superb. The legendary Steve Vai contributes a series of superbly expressive solos to the opening track, as well as the conclusive ‘Ghost Poppin’, while the equally talented Buckethead and Elliot Easton lends their frenetic finger work to ‘Visions of Earth’, ‘Slashing Void’, ‘Dismemberment Blues’, ‘Fightin’ Mad’ and the wonderfully-titled, Terminator-style ‘Pam Grier’s Head’. The irrepressible Scott Ian of the metal band Anthrax comes in to collaborate on ‘Love Siege’, the impressive ‘Fight Train’, the Mission Impossible-inspired ‘Kick Ass’, ‘Power Station’ and others, and lends the cues on which they perform a heavy energy, a palpable sense of throbbing power, and some awe-inspiring sequences of guitar led mayhem. The one exception to the rule is the oddly funky ‘Can’t Let You Go’, which sounds more like a refugee from a blaxploitation pic, and features a unexpectedly accomplished saxophone solo. The Pam Grier influence, no doubt. As I said, as pure music, Ghosts of Mars is enjoyable for any fan of rock instrumentals.

The problem, however, is one of appropriateness and tone. In the liner notes, Carpenter says his music is techno inspired and drenched in heavy metal. My response: why? What has techno and metal got to do with a science fiction horror movie? In a time when film music is accused of being unimaginative and bland, I suppose one has to give Carpenter credit for trying to rock the boat, but you also have to think about how your score will connect with the film’s audience. The short answer is that Ghosts of Mars doesn’t – how you can empathize with the characters and get emotionally involved in their plight when you have this kind of music relentlessly blaring in your head for an hour? The fact that there is no variation in tone or style is also a huge mistake on Carpenter’s part. If you have a massive rock anthem playing in a fight scene, and then a slightly different massive rock anthem playing in the subsequent love scene, how is the audience supposed to react to this? It has been said that more than 50% of the emotion an audience feels in any given scene is due to the music. On this evidence, most of the audience would be expected to be head banging rather than emoting.

I don’t want to come across as an old fogey, but scores like Ghosts of Mars more than illustrate just what is wrong with certain parts of the film music industry today. Much of the subtlety that existed in Hollywood’s golden age has gone, replaced by music which batters the audience into submission rather than cleverly coaxing them into feeling a certain way. To re-iterate: I like John Carpenter, and I like good rock music – and Ghosts of Mars is good rock music. And although I’m sure he had a great time creating it, it’s a bloody awful film score.

Rating: *

Track Listing:

  • Ghosts of Mars (3:42)
  • Love Siege (4:37)
  • Fight Train (3:16)
  • Visions of Earth (4:08)
  • Slashing Void (2:46)
  • Kick Ass (6:06)
  • Power Station (4:37)
  • Can’t Let You Go (2:18)
  • Dismemberment Blues (2:53)
  • Fightin’ Mad (2:41)
  • Pam Grier’s Head (2:35)
  • Ghost Poppin’ (3:20)

Running Time: 42 minutes 54 seconds

Varése Sarabande VSD-6286 (2001)

Music composed by John Carpenter. Arrangements by John Carpenter and Joseph Bishara. Featured musical soloists John Carpenter, Steve Vai, Bucket Baker, Elliot Easton, J.J. Garcia, Brian James, Buckethead, Robin Finck, Scott Ian, Paul Crook, Frank Bello, Charlie Benante, Brad Wilson, Bruce Robb and Joe Robb. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Robb and Dee Robb. Edited by Tiago Becker. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan-Fourstar. Album produced by Bruce Robb.

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