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The Film “Ghosts of Mars”: Plot and Production Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: May 25th, 2020


Ghosts of Mars is a movie co-written by John Carpenter and Larry Sulkis. It was officially released on August 24, 2000, and distributed by Screen Gems (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). It is produced in a setting that looks at life in the 22nd Century. It revolves around the lives of aliens who are under siege from Martians (Woods, 2004). The producer chose a quarry in New Mexico as the location for shooting the movie because it allowed for creativity. The movie, directed by John Carpenter and produced by Sandy King, stars a number of established actors. Some of the actors featured in the movie include Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, and Joanna Cassidy, among others (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001).

The movie did not live up to its expectations following its release because it had a very low rating. The earnings made from the box office were also not good because they were lower than the cost of producing the movie. Most critics consider Ghost of Mars as one of the lesser films produced by John Carpenter because it revolves around concepts he had already explored in other films such as Big Trouble in Little China and They Live (Woods, 2004).

Origin and Plot

Ghosts of Mars is a science fiction film produced in the United States. The plot of this movie is set on Mars and depicts a recreation of how the producer envisions life on the red planet. It focuses on the lives of people who have to fight for their survival in an environment characterized by constant attacks by Martians (Woods, 2004). When the movie opens, the viewer is welcomed by a scene showing the invasion of aliens by Martians. Pam Grier plays the role of a tough commander called Helena Braddock, while Ice Cube’s role is that of a convict called James Williams. Joanna Cassidy acts as a scientist called Dr. Arlene Whitlock, while Jason Statham’s role is that of a tough police officer called Jericho Butler (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001).

The main character in the movie is Natasha Henstridge, who plays as a Lieutenant Melanie Ballard. She is second in command after sergeant Jericho. The highlight of the movie happens when Lieutenant Ballard is sent on a mission to Shinning Canyon, a mining location in a remote area of the red planet. She is tasked with organizing and leading a military campaign to rescue convict James Williams from jail (Woods, 2004).

Lieutenant Ballard is shocked to arrive in Shining Canyon to find that there are no people in the mining outpost. The reason why there were no people in the area was because of a discovery that miners in the area had made. A civilization attempt by the Martians resulted in an underground tunnel, which had a door to it (Philips, 2012). When the miners opened the door, several ghosts came out and possessed them. These were the ghosts of Mars. People possessed by the spirits turned into killers. Their main target was anyone who tried to move them out of Mars. It was a huge challenge to the soldiers because they had to fight off the possessed Martians in order to accomplish their mission (Philips, 2012).

They were killing people and causing a lot of destruction in the area. The soldiers suffered the first defeat when their team leader Helena Braddock was killed in the tussle. Lieutenant Ballard took over the command of the team and focused on fighting off the miners, rescuing the detained convict, and fleeing off the town (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001).

The biggest challenge they had to deal with was the fact that it was not possible to kill the ghosts. One of the notable features of the ghosts was that they were very fast and good at martial arts. Their leader big daddy Mars, who is played by Richard Cetrone, was the most dangerous and feared ghost (Woods, 2004). However, the strong leadership of Lieutenant Ballard enabled her team to come up with a quick solution, which was to use a nuclear reactor to kill the ghosts. This idea did not work because the ghosts survived the attack and managed to kill some members of Lieutenant Ballard’s team. Sergeant Jericho, along with a few other officers, died in the process of killing the ghosts. Lieutenant Ballard nearly got possessed by the ghosts. James Williams managed to escape by handcuffing Lieutenant Ballard on the train (Philips, 2012).

She later managed to release herself and head back home, where her superiors failed to believe the story of what had transpired (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). This disbelief created a good opportunity for the surviving ghosts to launch an attack because people were not prepared.


Ghosts of Mars is a film directed by John Carpenter. He was born on January 16, 1948, in Carthage, New York. His love for films started when he was a young boy growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky (Philips, 2012). John Carpenter received his inspiration for writing and making horror movies from 1950s movies such as the Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World. The alumnus of the University of Southern California has been active in the American film industry since 1962 (Philips, 2012). Over the years, Carpenter has cut himself a legacy of being one of the most remarkable film directors, screenwriters, producers, and composers. He has specialized in the production of science fiction and horror movies, just like the Ghosts of Mars. Most movies by Carpenter are characterized by low lighting, little photography, and the use of static cameras (Philips, 2012).

The first movie that Carpenter directed successfully in his career was Dark Star, a 1974 low budget science-fiction comedy about African Americans. This movie created more avenues for Carpenter, who went ahead to direct numerous successful films such as Halloween, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, The Thing, Star Man, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live among many others (Philips, 2012). Critics argue that Carpenter is one of the most influential people in the American film industry, despite most of his movies failing critically and commercially in the box office. He has received numerous awards, including a Lifetime Award in 2010 from the Freak Show Horror Film Festival (Philips, 2012). John Carpenter has been married to his spouse Sandy King since1990. Sandy King is one of the producers of the Ghosts of Mars. Following the release of the Ghosts of Mars in 2001, Carpenter considered taking a break from the industry. This did not last for long because he was back into directing in 2005 (Philips, 2012).


Sandy King and John Carpenter did a remarkable job in producing Ghosts of Mars. It is an enjoyable film for its level and genre. Critics argue that Ghosts of Mars is the culmination of a series of other movies directed by Carpenter revolving around a similar theme. This movie is closely related to some of Carpenter’s past productions, such as Halloween produced in 1978, The Thing produced in 1982, and Vampires produced in 1998 (Philips, 2012).

Just like any other science fiction movie, watching Ghosts of Mars makes the viewer ask a few questions. The first question one asks from watching this movie is the reason why aliens often turn out to be violent. From the movie, it is evident that the Martians were very aggressive, hostile, and violent towards people who visited the red planet (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). The second question the viewer asks from watching this movie is how it was possible that the Martians could develop mechanisms of safeguarding their spirits, yet they did not show any signs of civilization. Although these questions are not answered in the movie, the viewer develops a better understanding of the way spirits operate and the reason for their anger towards human beings (Woods, 2004).

Ghosts of Mars is a typical John Carpenter’s movie owing to the various elements visible through its production (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). It depicts the production style that Carpenter has been known for over the years. The movie is produced with a highly predictable plot, low budget effects, and the speed at which musical compositions are played is very awkward. The movie has a roster of eclectic film stars who make it highly marketable and enjoyable to watch. Critics argue that one of the best selling elements of this movie is the cast members, who bring out their roles in a very natural way (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). Before Carpenter started producing the movie, he had considered a number of other experienced actors for various roles. The script used in producing the movie was added as a continuation of an earlier play. Its original name was Escape from Mars, and according to the producer, the storyline did not change at all from the one used in making the movie (Boggs & Petrie, 2008).

The main character in the movie is Lieutenant Melanie Ballard that is played by Natasha Henstridge. Before settling on Natasha, John Carpenter had considered other film stars such as Famke Janssen and Michele Yeoh (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). The two had turned down the offer before Carpenter chose Courtney Love. Love did not play a huge part in the movie because she was involved in an accident during the preparations. Critics argue that love would have played the role better than Natasha because she had prior experience of a similar role in past movies. Others argued that her rock art image would have been a perfect match for the role (Boggs & Petrie, 2008).

Carpenter finally settled on Natasha after her boyfriend recommended her for the role. The producer had also lined up Jason Statham to play the role of Desolation Williams, who was a convict but later settled for Ice Cube. According to Carpenter, the reason for giving the convict role to Ice Cube was because he had the star power, which was required for that role. The replaced Statham was handed the role of a tough police officer called Jericho Butler (Philips, 2012).

Just like the Earth, Mars has a sunshine cycle that allows for daylight and darkness. However, the producer focused on shooting the movie at night. A viewer only experiences life on Mars during the day only once in a flashback scene (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). This made it hard for the movie to be produced within the initial timeline John Carpenter had set. According to Carpenter, the production team was also forced to shut down all the work for a week because Natasha, who was the lead character, suffered exhaustion. The producer also did a very good job on the choice of location for shooting the movie. John Carpenter was looking for a location that would help the viewer to create a clear image of what Mars looks like (Lambie, 2013).

A gypsum quarry in New Mexico was the location for shooting Ghosts of Mars. The walls of the quarry had to be dyed with red food colorings in order to create a landscape similar to the one on Mars (Lambie, 2013). This was a good product idea because the artistic work done on the landscape convinces the viewer that indeed, they see a location on the red planet. Shots taken both from inside and outside the quarry were done in an effective manner that made it easy for the producer to emphasize the theme developed in the movie (Boggs & Petrie, 2008).

Another remarkable element about the production of this movie is the ability to have a flashback within a flashback (Lambie, 2013). For example, when the movie begins, Lieutenant Melanie Ballard appears to be alone in the train, yet there is a lot of action and violent activity in the movie. All the violent activities are told in flashback. Another scene is at the quarry when sergeant Jericho appears with survivors whom Lieutenant Ballard does not comprehend their origin.

Sergeant Jericho explains this with a flashback, where he sees them in a shed and talk to them about the colony (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). The survivors explain to sergeant Jericho about the downfall of the colony through a flashback in which they narrate about the ghosts and the way they possessed people working in the quarry. The ability to have two flashbacks within a flashback makes the production of this movie a remarkable effort because they are organized in a manner that the viewer can comprehend whatever is going on (Lambie, 2013).

A keen viewer of the Ghosts of Mars will realize that the plot of the movie constantly spoils the surprises that happen on its own. From the production perspective of this movie, flashbacks are one of the biggest surprises that Carpenter has used. Critics argue that the use of flashbacks in movies is a common feature that viewers are already used to (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). Unfortunately, the production of Ghosts of Mars is in a manner that the viewer has the ability to identify a flashback very easily. The production team did a remarkable job of integrating them in the plot, but they failed in gelling them well in a manner that the viewer does not feel reminded that what they have witnessed was a flashback. The element of flashback was overused in the movie because Lieutenant Ballard, who is the main character, uses it a lot to tell her story (Booker, 2006).

This unusual element makes the movie to have a thrilling touch because the viewer cannot hold their suspense for long enough before they know what will happen next. A good example of a scene where the producer kills the surprises he creates on his own is when Lieutenant Ballard and her team are making an escape. They decide that they will use an explosion to kill the ghosts before they leave (Booker, 2006). Unfortunately, this does not work as planned because most of the ghosts were not affected in any way by the explosion. The producer spoils this through a flashback scene showing as Lieutenant Ballard expresses her disappointments at how the plan had failed. This makes it hard for the viewer to feel the effects on the flashbacks (Boggs & Petrie, 2008).

The producer introduces the concept of human identity through the faceless Martian fighters who engage the police officers (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). The Martians lack identity because apart from lacking a face, they do not have a voice, boundaries, and human side because they focus on killing people. The producer depicts them as human-like creatures that do not have value and meaning for an identity. They are self-centered and only find satisfaction in dominating over others. The nature of these people helps to develop a healthy contrast to the character of Ice Cube, which represents an African American hardcore criminal.

African American criminals were also known to be overly violent and inhuman (Carpenter & Sulkis, 2001). However, the character of James Williams, played by Ice Cube, shows a rare trait of sympathy and compassion from an African American convict. This is a rare occurrence in such kind of a movie, which shows progress and growth in terms of societal perceptions. The theme of politics is also brought out in the movie, especially when the surviving miners discuss everything that had befallen the colony (Philips, 2012). The presence of soldiers, police officers, and lieutenant show that there was a government somewhere that supported such institutions. The availability of a cell also shows that the political structures in the location are taken seriously (Boggs & Petrie, 2008).


Ghosts of Mars is a good movie, although it does not represent the ingenuity that people have come to associate its producer with. It may be one of the lesser films produced by John Carpenter, but it still manages to meet the expectations of a viewer in terms of the thrill it creates. It is a science fiction story that revolves around a lieutenant who struggles to fight off ghosts housed in an ancient tomb in a bid to rescue an abducted convict. The tomb contains red dust, which makes aliens invading Mars to be possessed. The convict, who was held up for suspicion of killing people, was locked in a cell that was considered a safe place away from the red dust. The list of stars featured makes the movie a must-watch for anyone looking for some adrenaline rush, as most of them are quite tough. The idea of blowing up the Martians, combined with the use of flashbacks, helps to make the movie interesting. The producer introduces the concept of human identity through the faceless Martian fighters who engage the police officers.


Boggs, J.M., & Petrie, D.W. (2008). The Art of Watching Films. New York: Granite Hill Publishers. Web.

Booker, M.K. (2006). Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. New Jersey: Greenwood Publishing Group. Web.

Carpenter, J. & Sulkis, L. (2001). John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. California: Storm King Productions. Web.

Lambie, R. (2013). . Web.

Philips, K.R. (2012). Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film. New York: SIU Press. Web.

Woods, D. (2004). The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. New York: Wallflower Press. Web.

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