I find myself tending to have a soft spot for horror and sci-fi movies set on Mars, even when they’re not all that great or don’t achieve big success. I quite liked John Carter; Doom is a guilty pleasure; and I usually find that I’m one of Red Planet’s (very) few fans. Forget Mission to Mars though. I’m adding director Ruairi Robinsons’ The Last Days on Mars to my list. Although it has few original ideas, it executes on its script well enough in this claustrophobic, nicely-shot actioner. Plus, it’s got friggin’ Martian zombies.
The story is from sci-fi author Sydney J, Bounds’ short story The Animators and centers on the research crew of Tantalus Base on Mars, who are just 19 hours away from a return trip to Earth. Despite the eagerness to return (by most of the crew anyway), the failure to find anything of significance, namely any kind of life, hangs a pall on the mission. Particularly perturbed about the lack of discovery is bitchy scientist Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams). For her, the six month mission wasn’t nearly enough time and her feeling is that the relief crew is going to come in and sweep up all the glory. That’s also the thinking for Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostic), who cons his way back onto one last excursion to the dig site when he finally makes a discovery of fossilized bacteria and doesn’t tell anyone. He gets crewmate Richard Harrington (Tom Cullen) to accompany him.
Of course, something goes wrong, Petrovic disappears into a crevasse, and it falls to other crew members, including the commander, Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas), Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber), Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai), Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama) and mission psychiatrist Roert Irwin (Johnny Harris) to mount a recovery attempt that is ultimately unsuccessful. Things only get worse when Petrovic and then Dalby disappear, but whose tracks are spotted leading back to the base. As it turns out, not all of the bacteria was fossilized and when you mix it with human, you get the recipe for space zombies that aren’t too bothered by the harsh Martian surface conditions…and are a bit harder to kill than a Walking Dead extra. From there the crew members start falling one by one and it becomes a struggle for the rest to survive the marauding zombies on the small base until help arrives.
The Last Days on Mars is pretty stock in its setup; it runs several familiar plays from the sci-fi and action playbooks and has many of its staples in its cast. There’s the reluctant protagonist struggling with some personal demon in Campbell, the textbook coward concerned only for surviving, no matter whom he has to screw over, the bitchy / asshole character, and the sneaky instigator who kicks the whole thing off and of course the cannon fodder. One problem with the story though is that, and this is a common complaint in these types of films, you don’t get enough time to really worry about who the characters are before they’re raving murderous lunatics. Still, Schreiber does anchor a veteran team and he’s well suited to lead them with his performance. His work is usually bankable and that’s no different here.
Ruairi Robinson does stage his action well, there’s a bit of genuine dread in the cramped confines of the base and space suits and the monsters are pretty entertaining. Also, the Jordanian landscape provide for some gorgeous and convincing Martian backdrops. Likewise, the production design by Jon Henson is suitably good. The sets, space suits and rovers all look believable and utilitarian. Overall, the film is a solid first theatrical effort for Robinson who does more with a well-trod set up than one would expect.
The Last Days on Mars is from Focus Features and Magnet Releasing and available in iTunes / On Demand now and in theatres on December 6.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Official Website: http://www.magnetreleasing.com/thelastdaysonmars