What We Can Learn from John Carpenter's Failed 'Ghosts of Mars'
Sometimes learning from failure is just as valuable as learning from success.
And even the greats, like master of horror John Carpenter, can have flops. His notorious blunder, Ghosts of Mars, an unfortunate sci-fi/horror/thriller/actioner that misses the mark on so many levels, essentially ended Carpenter's directing career.
But even a botched film like this can be a valuable way to point out how not to do things, and by teaching aspiring filmmakers what went wrong, hopefully, we can avoid the same mistakes.
Ryan Hollinger has put together a video essay on a few reasons why he thinks the movie was such a colossal failure. Watch it below.
When they arrive, they find the mining outpost abandoned. They slowly realize all the residents have been possessed by ancient Martian ghosts who make them engage in various forms of violence against others and themselves. There are a lot of sharp objects and mutilations involved. The police team has to figure out a way to destroy these spirits, which possess a new body whenever one victim is killed.
This project was first pitched as a Snake Plissken sequel, but this idea was scrapped when the franchise wasn't as profitable as the studio wanted it to be. The story stayed the same when Ghosts of Mars was made, but the character's name was changed to Desolation Williams, and the role was given to Ice Cube. The studio assumed he would be a big box-office draw.
Strike the right tone
Ghosts of Mars is a lot of things. It's a mix of shockingly violent and gory images mixed with jokey one-liners, lots of shoot-'em-up action scenes, and a sprinkling of romance for good measure. Carpenter meant this film to be a kind of homage to big '80s action movies, but he really missed the mark.
One thing Hollinger points out is that none of the actors seemed to know how they should approach the material. What we get as a result is a mess of scenes where people are playing some things straight, then laughing off their situation in the next scene. All the performances are kind of stilted and awkward.
Is it funny when someone's bleeding all over, and Ice Cube cracks a one-liner, but no one laughs? If it's not clear, chances are your story isn't landing, and your audiences aren't going to be enjoying themselves.
Make your plot beats clear
Audiences will be willing to take certain leaps within the realm of movie fantasy, but don't insult a viewer's intelligence by throwing a bunch of plot elements together and calling it good. Clear beats and clear stakes will help audiences connect with your material.
Having humans on Mars discovering ancient alien ghosts is a fine place to start, but without clarification of what exactly is going on and why we should care, it's hard to get invested in this story.
Hollinger also brings up a subplot with character Lt. Melanie Ballard (played by Henstridge) that is never really explained. Ballard is addicted to a drug throughout the film, which is maybe included simply to lessen her trustworthiness as the film's narrator. Or maybe, on a deeper level, the drug is meant to symbolize a fight against the character's rage, which then allows her to avoid possession. But either way, it's confusing because it's never clarified.
If you include something in your script, whether it's a character trait, a story beat, a line of dialogue, or anything else, be intentional about it. Everything in your story should work together to convey a central theme and add to your protagonist's journey.
On the other hand, if you're Aronofsky and you want to make something intentionally vague and open to interpretation like Mother! that's another story, but I think we can safely say even Aronofsky is not just throwing story elements around for the heck of it.
Think about story structure
By having Ballard, the protagonist, show up in the film's opening as the lone survivor of some horrific tragedy, the film establishes immediately that everyone else will die, and forces its plot into an awkward flashback framing device.
This would be like the first scene of The Lord of the Rings showing Frodo back at home in the Shire, telling everyone all about his scary journey to Mordor. It essentially ruins the ending and deflates any tension. (Of course, you can try to subvert this trope if you like. One small sci-fi movie that does it well is Europa Report.)
Ghosts of Mars goes a step further and jumbles its plot by intercutting between the past and Ballard's present-day account, and also flashing back within flashbacks. All this jumping around in time to serve exposition does not help build excitement or suspense.
The main takeaway here is that you don't have to over-complicate your story and try to make it fit into a gimmicky story structure if it could be much more impactful as a straightforward linear plot. If you have an opportunity to discover something alongside your characters, keeping action in the moment, try doing that first.
What's next? Continue learning valuable lessons from Carpenter's work.
Ghosts of Mars is an unfortunate low point in Carpenter's career, but there's still a lot of positive things we can learn from his films.
Take a look at what makes a John Carpenter film uniquely his, or how he masters the art of perspective. Or if you just need a little inspiration, read about Carpenter's favorite films. And examining the classic Halloween might be a good palate cleanser after this one.