Directed by Ruairi Robinson
Somewhere between Apollo 18 and Gravity lies The Last Days on Mars. Not appalling but not great, this latest launch into intergalactic zombieland entertains thanks mainly to a compelling cast and fun EFX.
On the final day of the first manned mission to Mars — one that’s proved disappointingly fruitless — a member of Tantalus Base crew believes he has made a last-minute discovery. It seems to be fossilized evidence of bacterial life: quoth David Bowie, “Life on Mars?”
Not one to let the relief crew swoop in to claim the glory, “Red Shirt” disobeys orders and sets out on an unauthorized expedition to collect samples. What he thinks is a routine excavation devolves into disaster when the ground collapses and he is swallowed into a hazy abyss. As his colleagues race the clock to recover his body, another one disappears… and before long the Tantalus Base crew realizes the virulent life-form they have uncovered is not fully fossilized after all.
Shot in desolate, seemingly boundless Jordan desert locations that stand in for the Red Planet, and making the most of claustrophobic spaceship interiors, The Last Days on Mars looks good. The digital effects are effective enough to augment a rather ho-hum script, but when it comes to the zombie mayhem, there’s not much meat to bite into. Based on Sydney J. Bounds’ 1975 short story “The Animators,” Clive Dawson’s screenplay sticks to standard and stock.
Movie zombies don’t have to be super-killers a la Resident Evil or anything like that, but they should be somewhat scary. Lacking the suspense and grip of flicks like John Carpenter’s The Thing or even minimalist stranded-in-space cinema like Duncan Jones’ Moon, The Last Days on Mars is saved from total tedium only by competent first-time director Ruairi Robinson and its stellar cast.
The always-affecting Liev Schreiber plays astronaut explorer Vincent Campbell, who’s in a fragile emotional state after six long months collecting specimens on Mars. He’s already had one brush with death, and that was one too many. Now he finds he must push even harder after fearless leader Captain Brunel (Elias Koteas) is infected and turns into a vicious, stabbing, slashing, teeth-gnashing zombie. Fortunately, Campbell’s got two tough gals in his corner – badass biologist Kim (Olivia Williams) and resourceful Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai). Schreiber elegantly balances the terror of a man outwardly fighting for his life while struggling internally to suppress his already-existing deep-rooted fears. Williams is scene-stealing superb as the one you’d want on your side in a zombie-apocalypse, and Garai is moving as Lane keeps the growing certainty that she’s been contaminated to herself.
While the suspense and drama could have been played up a little better, I did actually care enough to see what would happen at the end. The Last Days on Mars is, at least, worth a look.
2 out of 5