DIR: Ruairi Robinson • WRI: Clive Dawson • PRO: Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Peter Lambert • MUS: Max Richter • DES: Jon Henson • CAST: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams
The Murphy’s Law of Movies states not only that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, but that the concentration of aforementioned ill-starred events is inversely increased relative to how many days you have left until retirement.
In the case of Last Days On Mars, retirement is a team of international astronauts wrapping up their term on the Red Planet after long months of fruitless research has left nerves frayed and fuses short. When one scientist makes an unexpected discovery before suddenly going missing, the rest of the crew must scramble to make it off the planet alive.
Such dense film theory as Murphy’s Law of Movies is not quoted by this reviewer lightly, but rather to establish that viewers should already know what to expect from a film with “Last Days” in the title. Based on a seventies pulp short story which sees Martian bacteria reanimate dead flesh, the premise for Last Days On Mars can be boiled down to a pitch that almost certainly contained the phrase “zombies, but in space“, and this is largely what we get. A moment in the opening scenes sees a towering dust-storm sweep over the Martian base while Jack Hytland croons “Blue Skies Around The Corner” in the background, both sounds competing softly for dominance in a premonition of the life/void struggle to come. There ends the film’s last flare of originality, however, as we rattle through introductions to our typical cast of horror film fodder before jumping right into a fray of power tools, virus paranoia and dialogue more on the nose than Alien‘s facehuggers, which is but one of the many influences director Ruairí Robinson borrows from.
While most horror films tend to rely on the occasional bout of protagonist shit-wittery if they aim to last longer than the time it takes to dial 999, Last Days on Mars takes the biscuit on this particular score. From the very moment the nature of the threat is revealed each highly intelligent astronaut on the Tantalus crew seems determined to stand above the rest as paragon of poor decision making – I began to wonder if a space agency suffering buyer’s remorse hadn’t jettisoned them to the surface in the hopes of eradicating them from the gene pool, only to throw in a zombie virus just in case they couldn’t quite stumble into extinction without a little push.
Technically, the horror is visceral but somehow never quite reaches in to wrench the guts, the camerawork aiming for claustrophobia but often falling short on clutter. This is not to say that the film’s early moments aren’t tense or well-shot – simply that each horror film has a boiling point beyond which no amount of jump-scares or internal-organs-suddenly-rendered-external can register the reaction they should, and this is a point Last Days On Mars reaches far too soon.
We’re also introduced once more to the reluctant astronaut trope as seen in Gravity, where we’re invited to believe that engineer Vincent Campbell, played by the always-enjoyable but rarely-pronounceable Liev Schrieber, suffers from a debilitating fear of small spaces and yet could find no other work than that which involved squeezing into a pressurized tube to shoot off to a cramped base on our barren neighboring planet. Indeed, when the time comes for Vincent to overcome his fear by squeezing through a small tunnel in order to repair a comms array – a mission which seems mandatory to any space survival story – his quest culminates in a bit of technical wizardry which essentially extends to pressing a button and whispering sweet nothings to a flickering screen. Nitpicky, perhaps, but then when a film’s main problem lies with a script, small issues snowball until they ultimately drag everything down.
This is not to say that there isn’t plenty to commend in Last Days On Mars – the cast manages to pull some character moments from lackluster material, while Max Richter’s score is on-form as ever. The ambition here belies what had to be a relatively small budget, the production design pulling together an organic, lived-in feel reminiscent of Moon or Sunshine. However, where those films manage to marry high concept to the humdrum, Last Days On Mars never quite strikes the same balance. While loath to criticize any forays into the fantastical made by an Irish director as capable as Robinson has proven himself to be, Last Days On Mars ultimately aims high and finishes strong, but never quite slips the orbit of its many influences.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Last Days On Mars is released on 11th April 2014 Last Days On Mars – Official Website