Dir: John Carpenter. US. 2001. 98 mins.

A sci-fi/horror yarn with a touch of Western thrown in, Ghosts Of Mars has the kind of cheerful genre tackiness that we've come to expect lately from the John Carpenter 'brand.' What it doesn't have, in sufficient quantity at least, is the sort of wit and story-telling craft that sometimes elevate the veteran director's features above the genre norm. With only a mid-level cast to tout, matching even the modest returns of Carpenter's recent films - like the $20.3m US total from 1998's Vampires - could be hard. Video prospects may be better, but not by much.

It's the year 2176 and the Red Planet has become home to a scattered population of humans, most of them uncouth miners living and working in far-flung outposts. A female-led team of Mars cops - the planet's society is matriarchal - is on its way to a seedy mining town to pick up notorious criminal James 'Desolation' Williams (Ice Cube). The town appears deserted, but the cops discover that the ghosts of long-dormant Martians are on the loose, invading the bodies of the local humans and turning them into self-mutilating homicidal maniacs. To escape, the stern but beautiful Lt Ballard (Henstridge) and her cocky colleague Jericho (Statham) have to team up with Desolation and his henchmen.

A quietly menacing build-up creates some early tension. The chicks-in-charge idea promises some interesting story twists and the ghosts' ability to sneak unseen into the bodies of human hosts seems to present the opportunity for the kind of guessing-game tension that Carpenter milked so well in his remake of The Thing. After a while, however, the film descends into seriously silly comic-book horror, as the possessed horde, led by a grunting, howling Marilyn Manson look-alike, goes on the rampage. A couple of fancy narrative ploys - the story is told in flashback with some briefly overlapping timelines - do little to enliven the action.

Impressive effects and distinctive performances might have helped. But the effects here - as well as the stunt work and sets - are clearly low budget and none too imaginative. As for the performances, Henstridge and Ice Cube don't manage to create much interest in their ultra-cool characters and veteran action chick Pam Grier (playing Henstridge's commander) gets little to work with before her character is offed at the film's mid-point. British actor Statham (from Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) brings a refreshing edge to his part and there a couple of nice comic touches from Duane Davis as the boss of Desolation's criminally dumb gang.

Prod cos: Screen Gems presents a Storm King production.
US dist: Screen Gems
Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Prod: Sandy King
Scr: Larry Sulkis, John Carpenter.
Cinematography: Gary B Kibbe.
Prod des: William Elliott.
Ed: Paul Warschilka.
Costume des: Robin Michel Bush.
Special effects make-up: Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger.
Visual effects supervisor: Lance Wilhoite.
Music: John Carpenter.
Main cast: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea Duvall, Joanna Cassidy.