Ghosts of Mars, like Assault on Precinct 13 and Vampires, is one of John Carpenter’s non-Western Westerns. In terms of its plot, it’s very much a retread of Precinct 13: the forces of law and order must rely on the help of a criminal in order to survive the assault of a hostile mob of savages.
There are two striking and distinctive things about it, and they’re related to each other.
The first is that narratively, it’s quite complex: though other Carpenter movies feature flashbacks (The Ward) or framing stories (In the Mouth of Madness), none of his other movies have such an intricate collection of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, stories-within-stories.
The second is that there are dissolves all over the place: between the “present” and a flashback, between stories, between scenes, and, most noticeably, within scenes (noticeable because we aren’t used to seeing dissolves used that way).
The movie tells the story of colonists on Mars unleashing the “ghosts” of a Martian race only presumed dead. It’s the story of colonization: trying to impose a civilization on a landscape that pushes back up through that imposition. The stories-within-stories and the ubiquitous dissolves play this out: “now” and “then” bleed into each other, cause and effect are mixed, point-of-view and identity lose their fixed boundaries.
The movie wasn’t well received at the time. I remember going to the theater to see it with my brother, and while we both liked it, it felt old-fashioned to us: an action movie from a pre-Matrix era. Since then, though, I’ve seen it multiple times, and it now seems, if not quite radical, then at least as vital as any other great movie from its era. And in its story of a colonization and occupation undermined by the unseen forces of history, it also turned out to be very much a movie of its time. It’s a great movie, deserving of more recognition, and a reappraisal of its many merits.