In the 22nd Century, Mars has been mostly terraformed, allowing humans to walk on the surface without pressure suits. Martian society is matriarchal, with women in authority. Police officer Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is sent to a remote mining outpost to transport James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) to jail. In the remote mining town, Ballard and team discover that everyone is missing. When they get a sealed door open, the apparent ghosts who took possession of the miners are released.
The miners committed horrible acts of death and destruction under their influence, including self-mutilation. When Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) is killed, Ballard takes command to fight off the possessed miners, destroy the ghosts, and escape with her team intact. The trouble is: killing a possessed human only releases the Martian spirit, which can possess another human being. The team decides to vaporize all the ghosts by blowing up a nuclear reactor.
The crew, along with prisoners released from the lockup, are eventually wiped out by the possessed miners. Ballard is almost possessed herself but resists when given a drug. She learns that the spirits believe the humans are invaders and must be exterminated. After Sergeant Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), two train operators, and others are killed, only Ballard and Williams are left.
They arrange the nuclear powerplant to go critical, creating a small atomic bomb. Not wanting to be blamed for the massacre, Williams handcuffs Ballard to her cot and escapes from the train. Returning home, Ballard delivers her report to the authorities, which they do not believe. Ballard is recuperating in the hospital, when the released spirits, still active, attack the city. Wiilliams returns, and he and Ballard will fight on.
The film was written, directed, and scored by John Carpenter. It was not well reviewed or financially profitable but became popular later. In the beginning, it was supposed to be a Snake Plisskin vehicle called Escape from Mars, but Escape from LA was not as successful as hoped and Ice Cube was hired instead of Kurt Russell. Michelle Yeoh, Franka Potente, and Famke Janssen turned down the role of Ballard. Courtney Love was hired, but she was injured, and Natasha Henstridge replaced her. She had done two other movies in rapid succession and suffered from exhaustion.
Much of the movie was filmed in a gypsum mine, with the white gypsum dyed red to play the Martian surface. It was a kind of futuristic remake of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. It featured Jason Statham’s first on-screen kiss. After this, John Carpenter felt burnt out and decided to leave Hollywood for good. It was nine years before he did another movie. Carpenter was purposely making Ghosts of Mars over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek for the sake of humor, but most people thought it was a silly failed horror movie. I just took it seriously and enjoyed the brutalist Martian architecture and the neo-noir action in time to Carpenter’s pounding music.