Review: The Last Days on Mars (2014)

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Director: Ruairi Robinson
Screenwriter: Clive Dawson
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Johnny Harris, Goran Kostic, Tom Cullen & Yusra Warsama
Runtime: 98 min // Certificate: 15

I don’t get it… it’s called The Last Days on Mars, right, yet it all takes place in just under 18 hours. Surely it should be called The Last Day on Mars? Alright, so the sun sets, there’s some night-time scenes and then the sun rises again but that’s not really a day; that’s like me getting up at 11pm, going to bed at 1am and claiming I’ve been awake for two days. I mean fair’s fair; it’s not a major issue. I didn’t let it bother me or anything… well, not much anyway. It’s just, y’know, a bit of a redundant title…

Alas, minor semantic quibbles are the very least of this film’s problems. Set in the last days (day) of an exploratory mission to Mars, the film follows a somewhat despondent team of scientists, led by Captain Charles Brunel (Koteas), as they prepare to return to Earth empty-handed. However, as luck would have it (or not, as the case might be), with less than 18 hours to go until their departure, one member of the team – Marko Petrović (Kostić) – discovers some bacterial samples that might well turn out to be the definitive proof of indigenous life on the Red Planet that the team have spent the last six months seeking. What follows is a bizarre cross-breed between 28 Days Later…, Prometheus and the Doctor Who episode “The Waters of Mars”. The bacterium infects Petrović and turns him into a zombie-esque creature. Before you know it, the team is under attack from all corners as, one-by-one, they begin turning into rage-driven psychopaths whose sole purpose is to spread the infection.

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Now, on paper, it’s a relatively solid idea. Unfortunately the problem, as is so often the case with B-movie throwbacks like this, is that the execution is sorely lacking. I can’t shake the feeling that someone sat down in a room with a bunch of movie executives, said the fateful words “hey, zombies are popular right now… why don’t we stick them on Mars!” and then had absolutely no idea where to take it from there, but still got a wad of cash thrown at them anyway. Ruairi Robinson – the film’s director, and the man responsible for one of the best short films of the last decade – has said that he wanted to make a space thriller akin to Alien… and you know, I just haven’t the heart to explain to him just how sorely he failed to even scratch the surface of what makes that particular film so timeless.

The main issue here is that it’s all so predictable and bland. In true horror-thriller fashion, the bloke with the foreign accent and the black woman are the first to go, followed by the guy who doesn’t fit in, followed by blah, blah, blah. You know the shit I mean; the order of casualties is as predictable as the rest of the plot. As the action starts to crank up a bit and the “zombies” (are they zombies? I dunno, ask David Morrissey) begin to attack, the film fails to deliver on its promises of excitement and dread. The creatures rarely feel threatening and the action sequences – though passable to begin with – start to feel tiresome when you realise it’s just the same old trash in two or three different locations. Even the inherent claustrophobia of a dark, mysterious base on a distant planet is wasted with scenes of people driving around aimlessly… which, come to think of it, is a rather pertinent metaphor for the film itself.

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Nevertheless, in many ways – almost in spite of its near-fatal overreliance or typical sci-fi tropes – The Last Days on Mars is very much a film of two halves; namely, and quite literally, night and day. In the earlier, lighter scenes, the film is relatively okay. The “pre-crisis” build up focuses on the tension between the crew members and allows for some light character development, which is quite nice. Similarly, Robinson’s film looks spectacular in the daytime. The Jordanian landscapes are used to their full effect, creating an immovable air of isolation that really does some justice to the film’s Mars setting. Then, alas, night-time arrives and it all falls apart. The plot flounders, the characters turn into (bigger) clichés and it all becomes much too dark. I mean that literally by the way, not metaphorically; in the darkness you can barely see what on Earth (or… wait for it… what on Mars… *rimshot*) is going on.

In conclusion, The Last Days on Mars is a generic but sometimes enjoyable science fiction thriller. It adds nothing new to the genre but it boasts some decent performances from Live Schreiber, who is a likable lead, and Olivia Williams, who is wonderful in, well, everything. However, the script is about as barren as the planet on which it is set and Robinson simply doesn’t deserve to have such decent actors under his direction. The film also hits a brick wall in its final few minutes, opting for a disgracefully lazy, so-called “open” ending that really rubbed me up the wrong way, though I guess that’s just symptomatic of the film’s general vapidity.

I wouldn’t necessarily say “avoid”, but don’t waste time or money on a trip to the cinema to watch a film you’ve seen done better countless times before. The Last Days on Mars? More like Another Day of Mehhhh