Directed by Ruairi Robinson
Distributed by Magnet
Exciting things have been happening in the world of direct-to-video titles in recent years. Smaller studios have been putting modest sums of money into producing ambitious, “unconventional” films with scripts strong enough to draw interest from some top notch talent. With so many DTV titles hitting the market every single week, it can be easy for filmgoers to overlook titles worth their time. Plus, it doesn’t help that marketing departments almost universally do nothing to make their films look unique; to stand out on a crowded shelf full of floating heads and overused imagery. Horror is a genre that can flourish in any market, DTV or big budget; and it’s from the DTV pool that many of each year’s most memorable titles spill forth. Irish director Ruairi Robinson’s sci-fi horror tale, The Last Days on Mars (2013), is certainly capable of making some best-of lists by year’s end. His film, adapted from Sydney J. Bounds’ short story “The Animators”, is a tense, engaging piece of filmmaking that in many ways feels like a contemporary successor to John Carpenter’s early work. Themes of isolation, confinement, mistrust, and escape all work simultaneously right up to the bitter end, leaving viewers on an ambiguous note that works beautifully.
The crew of the Tantalus research base on Mars is about to go home. Their six month mission searching for life on Mars has just 19 hours remaining before the Aurora, a passenger ship, arrives to take them back to the main orbiting vessel. Marko (Goran Kostic), one of eight scientists on site, makes a last minute request to go off site in order to repair a failing sensor, taking crewmate Richard (Tom Cullen) with him. On the way over, Marko admits to Richard he thinks microbial life has been found, using the ruse of a downed sensor to make the discovery himself. When they arrive, Marko finds what he was hoping for… just before a huge fissure opens up and drops him to a certain death below. Richard goes for help, bringing back Capt. Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) and Dalby (Yusra Warsama) to investigate the newly-formed pit, but they quickly realize climbing equipment is needed to retrieve Marko’s body. Darby is left behind to keep watch. When Charles returns with Vincent (Liev Schreiber) they discover Darby gone and Marko’s body missing. Vincent spelunks down to investigate, finding a host of black bacteria growing on the rocks. They return to base to reconvene, though things are quickly turned to chaos when Marko reappears at the base… changed.
As tempted as I am to reveal the true nature of this film, a huge part of my enjoyment was going in knowing nothing about it aside from the Mars setting and Liev Schreiber leading the cast. It was a total bonus to find out Casey Jones himself, Elias Koteas, also signed on! But first, let’s get back to that Carpenter reference. Ruairi Robinson said one of his primary influences for this film was The Thing (1982), Carpenter’s unequalled masterpiece of horror. While I want to stress this film doesn’t even play in the same league as Carpenter’s, its influence is evident when you draw the parallels – isolated crew, medium in numbers, limited space to move about, and an evolving threat that breeds paranoia and suspicion. This may be giving too much away, but if I had to give the film a log line it’d be “28 Days Later (2002) on Mars”. Once the events begin to unfold, Robinson does a splendid job of maintaining an air of tension that just won’t quit. Our crew doesn’t have much room to move within, nor time to waste trying to quell the very real, very active threat stalking them at every turn.
A big part of why this film works is the interpersonal relationships amongst the crew. Robinson isn’t trying to impress with the film’s primary threat by doing something so original and bold. How many space horror films have fallen flat on their face by trying to astound audiences with something we’ve presumably never seen before? In the case of The Last Days on Mars, it’s a threat we’re familiar with, though maybe not on this particular planet. The filmmakers cast actors who usually perform in drama or action, not the typical sci-fi players viewers might expect. Liev Schreiber delivers a strong, emotional performance that presents a fractured man living with guilt, just trying to pass the time until he can get off this rock. He has genuine relationships with the people he works with; this isn’t the crew of Prometheus (2012). This is a group of rational scientists who work together, bicker, argue, and ultimately prove how much they care (or don’t) in the moments when it matters. Nobody is completely two-dimensional, even those who leave us relatively early.
The film majorly succeeds in projecting the feeling that we’re really on Mars. Many films set on the Red Planet wind up shooting in an American desert or, worse, in front of a green screen. This movie was shot in the deserts of Jordan, and those environments look about as foreign as anything I’ve ever seen. Robinson intentionally chose to present an arid, austere locale that wasn’t drenched in heavy red hues; the uniqueness of the chosen location conveys a Martian landscape better than any color tinting could. The Last Days on Mars presents a long-sought true life premise – discovering life on other planets – and uses it to deliver 98 minutes of well-executed horror where no one is truly safe.
Shot on 35mm film and then transferred to Blu-ray via digital, the film’s 2.35:1 1080p image is exceptionally good. The Jordanian deserts provide a stark palette upon which the filmmakers have overlaid extensive digital environments and tweaked the coloration to lend a subtle blanketing of red hues. The dusty, rocky terrain of Mars lies in stark contrast to the sterile, pristine interior of the crew’s base camp, which appears highly detailed and razor sharp. Facial closeups look so good you can count the individual hairs on Schreiber’s face. At least 1/3 of the picture takes place in well-lit environments, allowing every minute detail to come through with perfect clarity. Once we move to total darkness, all we’re allowed to see is what our cast can see, with lighting coming from sources such as a flashlight or the lights on a rover. Black levels are perfectly pitched. Despite working with a low budget, the visual FX team did a fantastic job of seamlessly blending the faux Martian landscape in with the real Jordan desert. If there’s one issue with the image – and, really, there is only one – it would be the presence of banding in a handful of shots. Otherwise, it’s a stellar presentation. Equally excellent is the film’s English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. This immersive track features superb fidelity, with dialogue registering high in the mix without overpowering subtle sound effects or the score. Composer Max Richter’s work here is really impressive, evoking feelings of dread and stoicism. The climax in particular gets pulses racing with a mixture of robust bass and heavy string vibrato. There’s a healthy balance presented between quiet, introspective moments and an eruption of activity when events begin to spiral out of control. An enveloping atmosphere is provided thanks to healthy activity from the rear speakers, which don’t overpower with their ambient cues but, rather, gently support the film’s soundtrack. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.
I’m not going to lie here; it’s very disappointing no commentary track was recorded. It would have been great to hear director Ruairi Robinson discuss some of the film’s more ambiguous moments. What we do get are a couple of featurettes and some trailers. “The Making of The Last Days on Mars” is a featurette that runs for around 15 minutes. As mentioned before, Robinson talks about how films like The Thing influenced his filmmaking here. Schreiber recalls how he was immediately drawn to the script because it was like nothing he’d ever done before. There’s also discussion about shooting in the hot Jordan desert in a space suit, which sounds like absolute hell. “Analyzing the Visuals Effects” shows off the different layers of visual FX used to compose the environments. It’s always fascinating to see what was tangible and what was computer-generated, since many times it can be difficult to tell where one starts and another begins. “Behind the Scenes Comparisons” showcases scenes from the film being shot on-set while a small PIP window shows the finished shot below. “AXS TV: A Look at The Last Days of Mars” is your standard EPK, providing a concise overview of the feature.
4 out of 5
2 out of 5