Monday, October 12, 2015
HubrisWeen 3, Day 7: Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Written by Larry Sulkis & John Carpenter
Directed by John Carpenter
Ice Cube: Desolation Williams
Natasha Henstridge: Lieutenant Melanie Ballard
Jason Statham: Sergeant Jericho Butler
Pam Grier: Commander Helena Braddock
Clea DuVall: Bashira Kincaid
Richard Cetrone: Big Daddy Mars
Remember when directors got their names put in movie titles? It seems to happen quite a bit in the horror genre, where Wes Craven, George Romero and John Carpenter were apparently viewed as bigger selling points than whatever it happens to be that they've made most recently (although with Craven, at least, the bigger selling point was his return to the horror franchise he started and then watched become a series about a wisecracking murderer--more a figure of fun than menace in a lot of ways). One doesn't see that going on much in horror movies today, but the ethic appears to be in place with Marvel Studios. I am a relatively high-level comic book nerd and I had never heard of Star-Lord, Drax, Gamora, or Groot. I think I might have been aware that Rocket Raccoon was a character. And I think it's likely that the vast majority of the theatrical audience that made Guardians of the Galaxy a hit had no idea who any of those characters were either, but the important part of the title for them was Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. If people liked the previous films from the studio (which ranged from mediocre-plus to stellar), it's likely that they were gonna enjoy that one also as well. But without that studio name before the movie, people would be likely to just mentally revise the title to Tree Guy and Furry Creature in Space. And that's not likely to sell a lot of tickets.
Which is pretty much what Ghosts of Mars is telling us by putting Carpenter's name up before the title. If you liked his earlier movies (which get pillaged for plot elements and characters to a greater or lesser extent) then you're probably going to dig this one too. And if you're not someone who would automatically want to watch a movie just because a certain person directed it, well, chances are this one won't do anything for you that it wouldn't have done on its own. Your mileage may very, of course, but if you dug this film and haven't seen anything else from the director you have a half-dozen movies to put on your Netflix queue with a quickness after you've watched this one (although you cannot really go wrong with anything he directed from about 1978 to 1988, his version of The Thing is probably his single best film. You also won't go wrong with Halloween, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, or the horrifyingly still-relevant They Live).
And just look at that cast! Jason Statham on his way up in Hollywood, Ice Cube before he decided that family-friendly entertainment paid the bills more effectively, Pam Grier reminding everyone of the golden era of exploitation film and a couple dependable B-listers to provide heroism on demand. Plus there's a gender balance to the Protagonist Squad--in most of the action films or Westerns that this movie is riffing on--including some of Carpenter's own--there's a token chick to do some of the Action Stuff when the men are all busy (think about how many of the Magnificent Seven have double-X chromosomes, for example). In 2001--and now, sadly--that's extremely atypical for genre films where an all-woman cast isn't the gimmick.
The film starts with a quick two-barreled exposition dump. While the planet Mars pops up on the screen along with statistics saying that the planet has been changed to suit Earthly life--the atmosphere is breathable and the terraforming process is 84% complete, whatever that means in this context (I'm pretty sure there isn't 1/6 of the planet that's still Martian desert while the rest of it has forests, lakes and oceans, but the little statistic caption on the screen says 84 percent--and the image of the red planet doesn't look terraformed, in that it still looks just like Mars and not at all like Earth). Meanwhile, a voiceover narration lets us know that there are settlements disappearing as some weird new presence is making itself known; there are no reports of whatever is killing everyone at those outposts, but it can't be a good sign. Oh, and the society is described as "Matriarchal", which I would have expected more on a terraformed Venus. But that does give Ice Cube a chance to complain later on about being pushed around by The Woman, so that's all right. And there's supposed to be 640,000 colonists living on the planet as of the start of the narrative (but that number's probably going to drop, what with this being a horror movie as well as a siege Western and science fiction).
The credits run over a score that reminds you that it might be a John Carpenter score, but it's one he did in the Nineties so the electronic minimalism also has an uptempo drum machine working overtime and the synthesizer equivalent of the "wakka jawakka" guitars from old blaxploitation soundtracks. It pegs the score to the year amazingly well. While we see the impressive list of names of B movie stars in the cast, some sort of armored monorail Train of the Future makes is way along a track in a dusty Martian landscape. It's running on autopilot, which is probably possible because it's a train and it's only going to go in one direction. It pulls into Chryse, which has a little historical plaque outside saying it's the first city on Mars--and it looks to be the size of something like Denver, stuck in the middle of a huge rocky red desert. I'm not sure how much terraforming has actually been done if all the scenery is still essentially Martian but there are cities in it as well. Maybe the terraforming crews have all been padding their time cards for decades.
In a meeting room somewhere, a woman authority figure (in a charcoal grey suit) addresses some kind of council (all also in charcoal grey); that train from the opening credits was empty when it came back from wherever it was from. There was only one person on the train, a security officer (Martian cop) named Melanie Ballard. She was handcuffed to a bunk, which raises the question of who did that to her and why they did it. Ballard was unhurt but had traces of a particular drug in her system, and is now going to be explaining what happened to her to the entire tribunal. Her story comprises the feature-length flashback that will constitute the narrative of the film. She appears to be a standard-issue Cop on the Edge(tm) when she talks to the tribunal, the head of which assures her that she isn't being charged with anything and can speak without worrying about the consequences to her career. One gets the feeling that the council of authority figures really does want to know what the heck is going on, and if they have to overlook a few things that Ballard did over the last week or so, they'll happily do that.
So: Flashback ahoy! The train that was running from Shining Canyon to Chryse normally did service as an ore hauler, but had bunks for the security officers that needed a ride to where they were going. Given that the train has only half a dozen cars and all of them were the trapezoidal Future Train kind rather than an open-topped box full of rocks, I don't know how much ore it's hauling on this run. Inside, one Sergeant Jericho (played by Jason Statham when his hairline was only "receding" rather than "utterly gone") is fleecing a fresh-faced newbie by gambling on some baffling card game. The entire train shifts during a sandstorm and Ballard takes a pill that makes her hallucinate, imagine she's surrounded by water and play tricks with time. Hey, it's a boring train ride. If my entertainment options were losing money to Jason Statham or tripping ovaries (it's a matriarchy, so you can't be tripping balls) I'd probably go with Plan B if I didn't remember to bring a book. Her drug habit does not go unnoticed by the officer in charge, Commander Helena Braddock. She says everyone needs to be in their right mind for the upcoming prisoner transfer, and she's undoubtedly right. The con they're picking up is James Williams, but because that's not a particularly badass name he's got the nickname "Desolation". One assumes he's a standard-model Snake Plissken legendary criminal antihero dude.
Desolation's been snagged for murder, and Ballard mentions that he's beaten three previous murder raps by claiming self-defense (one assumes that there's some kind of Martian legal system where slimy lawyers can get the obviously guilty off--I usually figure that most of the criminal-justice system in an offworld colony would be of the "shoot him in the head and get back to work" kind, but if it was there wouldn't be much of a story). Regardless, this time there are piles of mutilated corpses and Desolation Williams talking crazy talk about why he had to make 'em that way. There's some interesting funhouse-mirror looks at misogyny here, as Commander Braddock and Lieutenant Ballard talk about the new officers they're saddled with and Braddock says she wishes the new sergeant was a woman, because you can inherently count on them. That's right, kids, there is one movie in cinema history that actually contains misandry and you're reading about it right now. I think Carpenter might have seen 1995's White Man's Burden, a social-message movie that showed an inverted white-black racial structure in America, before writing this. It's certainly nice to see some attempts at world-building while waiting for the carnage to start.
The Commander also abuses her position to sexually harrass the lieutenant, which shows that authority figures are authority figures, on whichever world they live. The engineer can't raise Shining Canyon on his comm system, but given that they're in a dust storm bigger than Alaska that isn't necessarily unexpected. The engineer has a coffee-fetching flunky as one more piece of Expendable Meat--it probably isn't a good idea to get too attached to any of the characters that haven't shown up as the lone survivor of the prisoner transfer. There's a "everyone stay sharp because Desolation Williams is a badass" speech as the train pulls in to Shining Canyon (and Jericho macks on his superior officer, which isn't the way normal harrassment is supposed to flow). The train pulls into the station so the cops can leave and grab their prisoner; the engineer says they've got other train-related chores to do elsewhere but will be back in four hours to pick the police and Desolation up so they can go back to Chryse.
Commander Braddock reminds the new fish that the air outside won't be Earth-standard for another decade, so using the respirators is not optional, but mandatory. Everyone also puts on safety goggles (which are a compromise between the need of the characters not to get Martian sand in their eyes and the need of the cinematographer and audience to see everyone's faces) and then it's time to do a prisoner transfer. There's nobody at Shining Canyon to meet them (and the veterans grumble about all the irritations, from petty to life-threatening, that are standard for everyone out in the prefab Martian boom towns). The group splits up, because this is a horror movie, and we learn that Sergeant Jericho used to be a cop at a "work-amnesty" prison camp called Utopia. Apparently Mars needs laborers more than it needs order (which makes it an interplanetary Deadwood, which ties back into the Western setting that Carpenter clearly loves based on his other films).
There's nobody at the jail, either, as Ballard and Jericho find out. The security cameras show Desolation Williams in his cell and the duo tries to track down the chief jailer in order to get some information about exactly what is going on. While they're searching, we learn that the atmosphere on Mars has been transformed to the point that you can get ominous thunder and lightning in the background while Jericho keeps trying to talk his superior officer into sleeping with him. Flickering lights in one building draw their attention, and inside they the aftermath of a fight and blood splattered all over the walls. There's also "put all the sharp things together" art in one hallway and a severed arm in a storage locker, but no sign of the rest of that person's body. Ballard very sensibly decides that it's time for backup and when they go outside, Descanso the male rookie and Jericho nearly shoot each other when they mutually surprise each other walking around the corner of the supply depot. Descanso says the "rec-fac" is a slaughterhouse; one assumes, then, that all the missing miners and colonists are there in body if not in spirit. Ballard tells the tribunal she never actually went in to see this, which in lesser hands would have meant that the film wouldn't need to supply dozens or hundreds of fake corpses.
The narrative switches back to follow Braddock and the two rookies (Bashira and Descanso) into the recreational facility, where the main room is festooned with headless corpses hung by their ankles from various light fixtures. There isn't even anyone that attacks the commander and her two semi-useless backup grunts--everyone's dead. Although I'd assume that there should be at least one person left over if there was a murderer running around doing all the murdering. Oh, and just to improve the situation and everyone's morale, Officer Bashira hasn't been able to get in touch with the train as it makes its four-hour loop to get back to them--it'd be nice if the engineer and his coffee-fetcher got warned about whatever is killing everyone, but so far that hasn't been able to happen.
Braddock, for all her sliminess towards Lieutenant Ballard, proves to be a competent law enforcement officer, looking for records in the mining camp that might provide a clue as to what kind of Martian psychosis is causing all the deaths. And Jericho is still trying to circumvent the electronic lock on a super-heavy-duty security door. The daily work logs at the mining company desk reveal that the previous night had winds so heavy that work was stopped, some petty crime, and then blank pages. Jericho gets the door to the holding cells opened (ironically, it looks like being in jail saved several peoples' lives during the massacre). Ballard takes a quick head count to determine who's still alive in the camp and it turns out that one of the people in the cells, a woman named Whitlock, was shut in there by her own request right before everything went crazy the night before. That certainly doesn't sound suspicious in the least, does it?
"Whitlock" turns out to be a doctor, and a science officer who oversaw another mining operation at "Drucker's Ridge"; she gets a flashback during Ballard's flashback in which we see her piloting a weather balloon to get the hell away from that ridge during "a disturbance in town". The official story was that it was a riot at Drucker's Ridge, and I imagine whoever's in charge of cover stories about this mining camp psychotic Reaver party is ready to call it a riot as well. Also, let me just note that the reddish-orange shape of the weather balloon with hexagonal solar cells on it vaguely recalls the shape and coloration of the beach-ball alien from Dark Star, Carpenter's first film. I think he was intentionally calling back to all the previous movies he created when he was making this one.
Desolation Williams turns out to be another John Carpenter hero in a sleeveless black T-shirt. If you are a man in the Carpenter filmic universe, and you are a stoic criminal badass, your biceps must not suffer the touch of cloth upon them. Williams doesn't react to the Ballard-Jericho duo when they ask if he knows what's been going on outside, but does turn around to glower at Ballard when she calls him an asshole. Williams' hurt feelings are going to have to wait, though, because there's a locked metal door with someone--or something--pounding on it to be let out. When the door is opened we see a survivor of the massacre who has creepy red flashes in her vision courtesy of a POV shot; she's another Mars Cop but instead of complaining that nobody's been allowed to use the bathroom like the other people in the holding cells she's just staring at her fingers and waving them around like a marijuana OD casualty in an After-School Special about staying off the drugs.
Williams, in a previous statement to the Mars Cops, said that he didn't kill the people he's been arrested for killing. He does have a shit ton of stolen mining scrip, but all that makes him is a thief. It might just be horiffically bad luck that he swiped money from other massacre victims and he makes a convenient scapegoat. When Braddock and Ballard go outside to sweep the area and talk away from the lower-ranked officers they find a mining rover with a person inside it--the guy has those red POV flashes when he looks at the police, but nobody outside can hear him yelling not to let "it" out of the rover by opening the door. The miner inside the rover opens his own throat with a dagger after saying he can't fight "it", and that "it" is inside him.
Braddock wanders off when she sees someone else run by outside (which is just what one would expect a competent police officer in charge of an investigation would do); when Jericho stops by the rover as backup he gets assigned the job of opening the door to the reinforced vehicle. Apparently he'll be our Door Opener Guy for the duration of the film. When Jericho asks what's going on, Ballard gives us a flashback to the previous minute--when she tells the sergeant what happened we see the film of it again. There are a lot of flashbacks in this film.
Whatever has those red-flashing POV shots is still in the rover although the person inside it is deader than disco. And whatever it is can't unlock the door on its own. Jericho comes up with a new plan: Don't unlock the rover door, find Commander Braddock and wait at the jail until the train comes back. That's actually a really sensible plan but when Ballard returns to the holding cells Williams has a knife to one of the rookies' throats and the other one's pointing a gun at hostage and hostage-taker alike. A quick diversion here in which I point out that Ice Cube is pretty much wearing Snake Plissken's outfit from Escape From New York, except that his camo pants are orange and red so that he'll blend in with the Martian scenery better. I really, really like that detail. Ballard offers herself up as a hostage of Williams will let the rookie go, and disarms herself to facilitate the swap. She gets the knife out of Williams' hand through martial arts badassness but he punches her out and runs off out into the Martian night.
Williams ran into the medical clinic (which has more of that barbed-wire-and-sharp-things artwork hanging from the ceiling); Ballard posts the rookies outside to shoot the man if he runs out the back and goes in through the front door to find him. One of the hospital beds has another finger-gazer dude in it. Worse than that, another one has a person sticking sharp metal fragments into their face who snarls at Ballard when the officer approaches. Worst of all, there's a third person out and about who tries to kill Ballard with a scrap-metal battle axe. Williams turns out to be the cavalry from that attack, but gets jumped by the face-mutilating one seconds after he beats the attacker's head in with a shotgun butt. He makes the entirely sensible point that things are really weird out there right now and it's obvious that there are lots and lots of homicidal lunatics running around the Mars colony cities right now; he didn't do any of the stuff he's being blamed for this time. He and Ballard are followed by a roving POV camera as they leave; the red-vision whatever it is can't get through the door once it closes.
Back in the jail, Williams says he's not innocent (he's got a ton of stolen money), but he didn't kill anyone. He explains what was going on via another flashback; turns out that he had enough time to grab a quick bite before getting on a train but found a bunch of headless corpses hanging from the ceiling in a payroll office. Why not grab a canvas bag full of mining-company scrip if it's just there for the taking? Also, probably it's a good idea to leave the area when headless corpses abound. I realize that Ice Cube is a legitimate badass who helped invent a genre of music that I'm not even tough enough to get away with listening to, but most of his line deliveries in this film sound like he's sulking. I don't know if he didn't get along with John Carpenter or if it was his unlucky 13th movie or what, but he's not that great in this, I'm sad to say. He's much, much better in Three Kings, which was released two years before this film. Heck, I haven't seen Anaconda in over fifteen years but I remember him being pretty decent in that one, too.
Anyway, Williams and Ballard have a moment in which the lieutenant tells the criminal that she doesn't believe he did any of the killings that he's been arrested for, but that the trial is the proper place to let the truth come out and that she's going to do her job by hauling Williams back to Chryse so that the legal system can do its thing. Then we blip back to the tribunal so the chief investigator can ask where Commander Braddock was, which entails another flashback to Jericho and Ballard outside the suicide rover. Jericho goes looking for his superior office and sees a Reaver running away in the distance. What's in the distance? A row of pikes with severed heads on them; Braddock recently got a haircut from the neck up and is the latest addition to the art project. Jericho peeks over a ridge and sees a group of body-pierced colonists having a screaming contest led by an obvious leader-type (who winds up yelling in Martian, which means that his inspirational speech goes down more than a little like the lyrics in this). After the yelling it's head-severing time; the Hellraiser groupies have some colonists who apparently weren't convinced to follow Chaos and are being executed. Jericho goes about five feet away to radio in that things are bad.
Back in the jail, Ballard hauls Dr. Whitlock out of her cell to grab her by the lapels, bounce her off a wall and yell at her until she gives us the entire flashback about what happened to her, not just the part with the crashing weather balloon. We just get a brief speech from her instead. Turns out that Martian ghosts have survived the deaths of the Martian bodies they used to inhabit, and are possessing humans. Sounds legit. I mean, the title of the movie is Ghosts of Mars so it stands to reason that's what is causing all the brouhaha. After this exposition, Whitlock opens a door and gets surprised by a miner / Reaver that jumps out. Bashira the rookie smacks it with a stun baton, which it shrugs off. Then Ballard shoots it seven times, which turns out to work. Once the human host body is dead we get a handheld red-tinted POV shot that looks around at the people in the jail (including a neat shot where it goes through the bars of a cell), and chooses one of the old drunks to inhabit--though it doesn't do anything instantly, so it might be that a Martian ghost has to learn how to drive a manual transmission again every time it takes over an Earth person.
Jericho radios in, saying he found three survivors outside and that they want to come in. Ballard opens the door and there are indeed three other dudes with Jericho. When she asks who they are we get another flashback, with voiceover, of how Jericho found them hiding in a shed. They noticed him first and yanked him inside the shed; turns out at least one of these guys was observant enough to notice that the ghosts of Mars can't get through solid doors so they've been laying low until they can get away from the crowd of Reavers outside. When the leader of the trio starts telling his story of what happened we get a nested flashback inside Jericho's flashback (which makes this a three-layer Unreliable Narrator stack). The three guys were waiting for a shift change so they could sneak into the crowd of miners when they see a CGI cloud of red evil vapors drift over the canyon rim and hunt down the miners. At first it looked like everyone died when the smoke hit them but then they got up and started hacking at their own bodies for ornamental purposes, making crude weapons out of mining gear and killing everyone who hadn't been infected. The three dudes in the shed wisely decided to keep their distance after that; they pick up a case of blasting caps (that are apparently useless without dynamite, but if they find any dynamite it's time to rock) and sneak back to the main building with Jericho once the mob of possessed minors wanders off past them.
So now it's time to go back to just the main flashback, where Ballard takes command of the situation for about fifteen seconds before the three dudes reveal hidden guns and say that they're here to do a slightly different prisoner transfer. Desolation Williams will be coming with them, please and thank you. Ballard decides it isn't in anyone's best interest to get killed and surrenders. But she also refuses to unlock Desolation Williams until Jericho points out that they need to have a unified front because there's 200 possessed miners outside who don't care about their squabbles. At gunpoint, Ballard lets Williams out of his handcuffs but during the criminals' self-congratulatory round of hugs and chest bumps she sneaks out of the cell and locks them in. Yeah, one dude has a shotgun but if they kill her they get to see who dies of thirst first if they don't wind up getting decapitated and hung upside down.
Ballard makes another play for Williams' sense of reason. She says if he gives his word that he and his gang will obey her commands, she'll let them out. He does; she does. Williams introduces his gang as his good friends Uno, Dos and Tres. Uno talks shit to Ballard and winds up in a painful-looking arm hold for his troubles while the other members of the gang just watch (Williams, true to his word, doesn't intervene while the other two just look like they don't want a piece of anything that Uno is getting). Ballard unlocks the other holding cells, declares martial law, deputizes everyone inside other than the dude scratching gouges in his face with his fingernails and tells everybody that they have a train to catch. The weapons locker gets emptied and everyone gears up. Those detonators get stuck into cans of food in order to make crude hand grenades and Dos manages to cut his thumb off during that project (he's not the sharpest arrow in God's quiver, and hampered by drugs in his breather tube). Ballard sets up a marching order for the group and everyone makes for the train when it's scheduled to arrive.
The mine office blows up as they're leaving for the train and a large group of Reavers reveals itself on top of other buildings. They've got some ranged weapons now, throwing circular saw blades like Frisbees at the group (and taking one dude out via a shot to the forehead). The train isn't at the station and Williams decides to attract the attention of all the possessed miners in order to start the fight everyone else wanted to avoid. Then it's BULLET SHOOTING TIME, and I'm amazed none of the untrained civilians kill each other in the confusion. The SQUIBBLY BLABBLY DOO! guitar work on the soundtrack makes me think back to other John Carpenter scores and sigh in a depressive haze. Still, it's an hour into the movie and time for a big setpiece. Dos manages to blow himself up grabbing a grenade he dropped, but nobody else gets killed by the Reavers. Uno winds up possessed as the leader of the possessed colonists stops by to yell at everyone (and now I know where the Epic Rap Battles of History announcer got his elocution lessons). Once the Martian elite boss stacks his Leadership bonuses with the mob of rabble, they start doing better--Tres gets speared and Descanso the rookie loses an arm and then his head to a buzzsaw Frisbee. The cops, criminals and random tough-luck victims wind up retreating back into the jail and Jericho breaks the door controls from the inside to buy some time. Tres expires shortly after the door is closed and it's revealed that Uno was Desolation Williams' brother.
Outside, the mob surrounds the building and does some rhythmic yelling exercises while in the jail, Dr. Whitlock hypothesizes that the Martian "ghosts" are actually a gaseous lifeform that can drift on the wind until they find someone to possess and then use them to wreck up the place in order to restore their home planet back into its normal state of affairs--a bunch of rocks with nothing else on them. I'm not sure what the ghosts were supposed to metabolize either while they were waiting for humans to come by or what they're going to eat after everyone's gone (there's no plants on Mars, so maybe they photosynthesize?) but whatever. It's a neat idea and it explains why the "spirits" are blocked by doors but not cell bars. It also means that the guy in the cell who has bitten all the skin off his fingertips should be kept alive by any means necessary until they can seal him in a a room where the ghost can't escape, because otherwise he'll kill himself and someone else will wind up serving as host to a homicidal Martian entity.
This hypothesis leads into yet another flashback, this one showing that Whitaker was called in to check out a "scientifically significant find" in a Martian mine. I don't think anyone actually says what these miners are looking for, incidentally. But Westerns have city folk and homesteaders menaced by indigenous people, so this movie has the same dynamic set up. During a routine "blow up an entire mountain" strip-mining excavation, the miners found something that was purposely built. There's a square-shaped door leading to a passage into the mountain. This being a horror movie, people immediately go down it and look at the solid metal plate with alien runes carved on to it. The second that Dr. Whitlock touches it with her bare fingertips the metal disintegrates (nice job, Doctor, and maybe next time you'll get someone to take a picture of the thing before you destroy it). The metal plate turned out to be the drain plug that was keeping the Sealed Evil in a Can down in the tunnel (which means that there's at least a little bit of Prince of Darkness in this movie as well--it really is turning out to be John Carpenter acting as his own tribute band and going over his greatest hits). The CGI red smoke rushes out of the tunnel and infects the gathered miners. Whitlock gets away somehow and presumably takes off in her weather balloon so that she can wrap up her flashback in the jailhouse.
The surviving rookie cop got in touch with the train; it's on its way but there's a blockage on the track. They'll be by as soon as they can. Jericho spotted a walled-in courtyard with a rover in the back of the jailhouse--he thinks piling into that and making a run for it is their best bet (but he didn't know the train was coming back). Ballard makes a command decision to wait for the transport and get word back to Chryse about what's going on. Also, they still do need to bring Desolation Williams back for trial. Outside, the possessed miners blow up another building and celebrate. Williams isn't the only one who thinks that train better get there soon. He and Ballard have a moment where he refuses to give any of his back story (which at least means we don't get another flashback).
Jericho has found a big sturdy room with a big sturdy door and shows it off to Lieutenant Ballard, turning his greasy, unshaven charm up to maximum levels and saying it might be their last chance to get together. Which is true in that everyone's probably going to die and false in that Ballard never wanted to do anything with him other than a prisoner transfer. Even in the matriarchal power structure of the Martian colony, scuzzballs gonna scuzz. Because the movie was written and directed by men it works, but the kiss between the two police is interrupted when Kincaid, the remaining rookie cop, wigs out and shoots the possessed minor in the jail cell. Which frees the animating spirit / organism / Martian thing inside him to go look for another host and it settles on Lieutenant Ballard.
Williams and Jericho drag the lieutenant outside and leave her there while the ghost of Mars possessing her starts to figure out how to drive. Williams swiped the locket that contains Ballard's drug stash (which he just thought was a piece of jewelry) but gives it back to Jericho out of a sense of compassion or regret or something. Jericho takes a tab of hallucinogen out of the locket and drops it in Ballard's mouth, and the resulting trip shows another flashback--this one of the rise of Martian fascists who turned the entire planet into a war factory. Then the drugs kick in and the sensation of water everywhere kicks the Martian organism out of Ballard while she fights it off. She vomits it out in possibly the worst CGI effect of the film so far, then the narrative trudges back to the inquest where Ballard explains to everyone there what the audience just saw.
After a couple sentences to the tribunal, we fade back to Lieutenant Ballard outside the jail building trying to get back in. One of the possessed miners takes a swing at her with a scrap-metal broadsword but she wins the fight (destroying the guy's leg but not killing him), then rigs up a grappling hook to get inside the jail perimeter. She's able to convince Williams and Jericho that she's still got all her marbles and they let her inside. Her flashback to the old days on Mars lets her (and the audience) know that the ghosts aren't going to stop until every human on Mars is dead. When she tells the holed-up survivors in the jail building, it doesn't go over well.
Out in the Martian landscape, the possessed have built a battering ram and are ready to smash their way into the jailhouse. A rough battle plan is outlined ("fall back to this room and hide"), and Desolation points out that every time they kill a possessed miner they free the animating Martian entity inside them to attack one of the survivors. Ballard and Williams both tell each other that anyone taken over by a Martian thought-parasite will be abandoned, but they don't inform everyone else. The ram-mounted rover makes short work of the front door, and Ballard and Williams make sort work of the crowd of Reavers running in through the breach. Jericho and Kincaid show up to shoot more possessed while the two stars of the movie reload. Everyone leapfrogs back into the storeroom, having shot dozens of possessed on the way back to their hundred-square-foot Alamo.
The chief Martian drops in through the ceiling and gets set on fire; while he's distracted the protagonists make a run for it but the day players get removed from the cast. The cops, Williams and Whitlock make it to the rover and make a break for the train, with the possessed (and their ringleader, who was hurt but not killed by the firebomb) in hot pursuit. Considering how cheap the rest of hte movie looked, the giant mob of possessed (each one with a different but similar costume and makeup job) really adds to the production values. They get right up to the train as it's leaving, but everyone escapes. Ballard decides, for some reason, that they have to stop the train so she can go back and show the Martian lifeforms that they aren't in charge of the planet now that humanity has set up shop. There's a brief conference among the police about whether or not Williams on on their side or merely his own as well, because that's so important right now.
For his part, Williams says he'd rather die fighting than running. Dr. Whitlock explains how to turn the closest atomic power station into an atomic bomb, but doesn't know if that explosion will kill the Martian entities. It certainly will vaporize the people they're using as homicidal puppets, though. Jericho gets assigned the job of opening the door to the power plant, as one might expect. Another trip to the tribunal where Ballard is relaying the story lets even the dullest members of the audience know that the plan isn't going to work and that the lieutenant is going to be the only one who makes it back to Chryse.
So, uh, the scientist and the two cops with their names high up in the credits get into the power plant but the Martian elite boss sees Ballard at the power plant and leads a charge to go kill them. More metal guitars played by people who don't really understand metal ensue. Whitlock gets possessed during the fracas and the train driver gets Extreme Disc Golfed to death. So does Kincaid (though she does dodge two shots before the third relieves her of her head). Jericho gets mobbed and butchered and the assistant train driver gets his throat slit. Now it's just down to Ballard and Williams out of the original group of survivors, and there are possessed on the roof of the train trying to get in. Some really bad green-screen effects get used to show Williams on the top of the train setting a booby trap and when Ballard opens the door to check on him a possessed miner with a Freddy Krueger glove jumps into the train to attack her while Desolation fights the ringleader on another car. Eventually he uncouples the rear car, which explodes immediately thereafter. The power plant goes up seconds later.
Ballard wakes up after the blast on her bunk bed with Williams sewing a wound on her leg shut and criticizing her for not seeking medical attention sooner. She also tells Desolation that she's going to give a full account of what happened, including that there's no way he could have been the cause of what went down. Then he handcuffs her to the bunk just to make sure she can't stop him when he jumps off the train; he trusts Ballard to do right by him, but doesn't think the system will help him at all. So it's time for him to hop off the train and look for some place currently free of Martian psychosis puppets.
Back at the tribunal, Ballard says she doesn't know where Williams is and gets put in a hospital bed while the council of greysuits decides what to do with her. The leader of the council doesn't feel like saying "a bunch of ghosts are messing things up here" and it doesn't look like whatever their decision was going to be will matter that much because there's a huge CGI cloud of red smoke drifting towards Chryse. Ballard wakes up in the infirmary hearing a PA ordering all civilians to seek shelter and all police to report to a munitions dump so they can deal with whatever crisis in Chryse is going on. Desolation Williams kicks in the hospital-room door and tosses Ballard a submachine gun; they go out to have their last stand while human civilization is scraped off of Mars like dogshit off a boot.
Ergh. "Tepid" is the best word I can think of to describe this one. It's a real waste of a good cast and a great idea; Carpenter is recycling lots of his old ideas and characters but not doing anything special with them. The possessed miners are a cool creepy idea (seen before in Warhammer 40,000 and Hellraiser, among other places) but their leader sounds so goofy when he's leading his mob that it falls apart. The narrative is needlessly complex, with flashbacks nested inside other flashbacks and there's no suspense when you already know Ballard's the only one who's going to get away from the situation from the first minute of the film. John Carpenter, you've done so much better with other movies. I really can't recommend this one to anybody except completists and die-hards. If you haven't already seen anything that Carpenter directed from about 1974 to 1990, pick one of those instead. He did a job that ranged from good to genre-redefining on any of those, and you're so much better off with them rather than this one.