Release Date: September 19th, 2013 (UK); December 6th, 2013 (US limited)
Genre: Horror; Science-fiction; Thriller
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams
The Last Days on Mars begins with a fairly promising sequence that sees two characters attempt to navigate an approaching dust storm. They bat around bouts of small talk, clean-sounding due to the atmospheric vacuum, quickly establishing their roles in the process. The air is quite eerie, uncanny almost. For five minutes, Ruairí Robinson’s outing works. Unfortunately, for ninety minutes it doesn’t. This subtle, edgy poise rapidly loses out to a flimsy skeleton; plot, characters and decision-making all broken and seemingly unmendable. On the Sunshine scale, The Last Days on Mars drifts miles yonder of Event Horizon before landing worryingly close to Apollo 18. Eek.
Thirty years or so from now, a team of scientists stationed on Mars are less than a day away from extraction. The incoming Aurora spacecraft is set to shuttle the crew back to Earth, but not before Marko (Goran Kostić) can covertly investigate some odd bacteria that he has come across. His findings are extraordinary, indicating the primitive existence of some new life form. However the nature of said discovery proves to be horrifying, and subsequently puts the remainder of the team in immediate danger.
In translating to the big screen, sci-fi historically carries a fairly patchy record. One element that has consistently shone though, is how the genre permeates atmospherically. Vastness is vast, and filmmakers are essentially unlimited given the nature of space potential. The Last Days on Mars makes fine work of the opportunities on offer, parading a visual spectrum that is encapsulating for the most part, and an aura that meanders tactfully between normal and creepy. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan delivers more than any other, affording the piece its one true success story. It’s only fair to point out Max Richter’s occasionally disconcerting score too, his musical interludes apparently effective enough to land him recent gigs as part of The Leftovers and As Above, So Below.
Annoyingly, this eerie-cum-wondrous soundscape signals the end of all things positive. The film tries too hard to be a slasher when the setting is far better suited to a probing approach. For some reason director Robinson cannot wait to show off his monster, and as a result the reveal comes sooner than expected. Scare factor crumbling, we turn to chaotic, jerking camera movements surrounded by pitch black darkness, all fruitful cinematography gone. Slotted indiscreetly amongst the outpouring of brash-yet-monotonous horror are snippets of philosophical musings.
It is as if the filmmakers, having mismanaged or simply forgotten the science-fiction element of their piece, feel the best solution lies with invariably adding earthy monologues. (“Do you think any part of us survives after death?” says one character, the notion shot down in a flicker as the next creature attacks). At one point we float over into unintentionally hilarious territory as the group argue about existing and dying over a deceased corpse that is showing signs of life. Sci-fi should engage its audience by channelling smart reflections and themes with gravitas, but the faint attempts displayed here reek of laziness.
The cast, quite well known despite the small budget, haven’t a hope in the world. Or in any world. Liev Schreiber leads as the claustrophobic Vincent and is granted the most material to work with. Once we’ve given up hope in terms of trying to figure out why a person afraid of small spaces would select space travel as his profession — he refers to their shuttle as a “coffin” — we’re left with hardly any inkling as to who Vincent and the other crew members are. The human characters are so poorly mapped out that it’s a wonder all of the actors found the set. It becomes an eternal struggle to care about any of them, or their fates, simply because we don’t know anything about the group. Mission psychologist Robert is the first one to lose his mind. Tedious.
Clive Dawson’s screenplay isn’t much better. Aside from the lack of scares and occasional deep thoughts, the narrative trundles along without vigour and fuelled by coincidence. The entire set-up hinges on a chain reaction of monumental contrivances: having spent a whole six months on Mars the team just so happen to discover this evil bacteria hours before they jet off home and the only reason said bacteria makes it on board is because a petulant crew member decides to look up the location of an errant mate and subsequently finds him at the site of the bacterial breeding ground. It is ridiculous and unashamedly so.
Perhaps the most grating factor of the lot is the fact that The Last Days on Mars could have been fun hour and a half. It never shows any signs of restraint or wisdom, thus the film was never going to be a serious sci-fi jaunt. But there is room for some B movie silliness. Though the whole thing is ravaged by a disappointing and ineffective requisite to walk the line tonally, a few looser ends here and there would undoubtedly have induced waves of low end but high value madness. It would’ve been a welcome turn of events for most of the cast — including well-travelled names such as Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas — who are instead left to suffer through cringeworthy speeches and poorly written characters.
The Last Days on Mars has been done immensely better before. It’s not necessarily that this is a horrible film, because it isn’t. Robinson’s piece is certainly bereft of many working parts but I’ve seen much worse. The movie is unavoidably boring though, and lazy. It wallows. With the ingredients laid before us — brimming with promise — it should, at the very least, be shooting for the stars and missing. Yet, The Last Days on Mars relents from even aiming skywards.
Images credit: Collider