Face-Off: Ghosts of Mars vs. Doom

Last Updated on August 3, 2021

This Friday, Ridley Scott will be abandoning Matt Damon on Mars for his take on the Andy Weir novel THE MARTIAN. While that film isn’t horror, its impending release did get me thinking about other movies that have dealt with the angry red planet, two of which stood out to me as potential Face-Off candidates: John Carpenter’s GHOSTS OF MARS from 2001 and the 2005 cinematic adaptation of the DOOM video game franchise.

The films share a setting and the basic concept of tough characters under siege by horrific monsters, so let’s get our asses to Mars and see who comes out the victor when they’re put head-to-head.

By 2176, Mars has been colonized and terraformed to have an Earth-like atmosphere. A team of law enforcement officers arrive in a small mining town expecting to perform a routine prisoner transfer and instead find themselves surrounded by homicidal miners possessed by the unearthed souls of the planet’s former residents. You’ve seen Carpenter tell this one before, except then it was called ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and the bad guys were gang members.
In 2046, twenty years after a portal to Mars is discovered on Earth, genetic experiments with the chromosomes found in unearthed Martian remains unleashes a deadly, monster-making virus. A Marines special ops team is dispatched to deal with the problem. You’ve seen variations on this many times before. Remember a movie called ALIENS?
Sure, Carpenter could have easily told a “police officers vs. possessed miners” story on Earth, possibly even as a Western, but giving it a Mars setting enabled him and co-writer Larry Sulkis to create their own futuristic matriarchal society. We’re shown a good amount of the planet, as the terraforming allows characters to walk around outside on the red sands, and we see miniature trains roll through landscape shots into towns and cities with their own unique construction style.
There is the occasional exterior shot, but the film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a research facility. Dark hallways, a laboratory, the sewer. Mars isn’t really brought to the screen at all in this one.
You’d think a film with protagonists like Natasha Henstridge as a drug-taking cop, Pam Grier, Jason Statham (with some hair!), and Ice Cube as a career criminal called Desolation Williams would win outright, no contest. Unfortunately, Grier is totally wasted, Statham wasn’t yet the Statham we know and love today, and Desolation Williams is no Napoleon Wilson, so it loses most of that lead. There’s a reason why the characters from this film aren’t remembered in the way those from several other Carpenter movies are: they’re really bland.
The Marines are a mixture of likeable, badass, repugnant, and utterly forgettable characters. Our top two are Karl Urban as the brooding hero Reaper and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Sarge, a character who shifts gears around the midpoint, going from a scene-stealing good guy to the film’s main villain. Reaper’s scientist sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike) gets to tag along and say smart stuff. They’re not a great bunch, but the presence of The Rock alone is enough to boost them past the characters in GHOSTS OF MARS.
The possessed people are bloodthirsty maniacs, and they look pretty cool. Once their bodies are inhabited by native Martians, the possessed start altering their appearances with piercings, scars, and warpaint, having become tribal warriors. The Martians aren’t hard to kill, but killing them just releases the spirit so it can move on and possess someone else.
The virus starts off by turning people into gut-munching zombies and gradually transforms them into hulking beasts. The zombies are nothing special, but the monsters look so good that I’m left wishing they had more screen time.
This film has all the elements you’d expect from this sort of Carpenter movie, but they’re at their weakest here. Carpenter and Sulkis also chose to give it an awkward flashbacks-within-a-flashback structure, which bogs things down and repeatedly takes me out of it. GHOSTS OF MARS is a fun movie, not quite as bad as it’s reputed to be, but overall I find it to be a disappointment. It could have been so much better.
For the most part, DOOM is a study in how you can drop heavily armed Marines into a monster-infested research facility and still have the scenario play out in a way that is incredibly dull. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak made a movie that is rather bland to look at it, often lit too darkly, and moves too slowly. The characters spend way too much time just wandering around, and Pike’s character spends the bulk of the film dissecting things in the lab, trying to figure out what’s going on. That wouldn’t have been necessary if they had stuck to the video game’s story of teleportation experiments opening up a gateway to Hell. The movie would have been a lot more fun if this were a demon invasion rather than a virus outbreak. The first person shooter sequence is awesome, but it doesn’t make up for what a slog the build-up to it is.
GHOSTS OF MARS squeaks by with the win in this match-up of Martian monster movies. Neither it nor DOOM are particularly good films, neither is nearly as satisfying as it should have been, but when all the elements are assembled I find GHOSTS to be the more enjoyable of the pair, and it makes better use of the planet it’s set on.

Do you agree with the results? Disagree? How does this Face-Off compare to the Statham vs. The Rock fight in FURIOUS 7? Let us know by leaving a comment below. If you have any suggestions for future Face-Offs, you can send them over to me at [email protected]

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of JoBlo.com, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.