It wouldn’t have been hard to slap a “The Thing Meets Gravity” or a “28 Days Later in space” strapline on the marketing campaign for The Last Days Of Mars, but it’s arrived with markedly less fanfare than most mainstream horror movies released this year, pushed back from its intended release last September.
The film is a nuts-and-bolts sci-fi horror flick that played out of competition at last year’s Cannes film festival, during directors’ fortnight, but it’s the interesting way in which it’s been executed that marks it for such distinction, more than any real sort of innovation or unpredictability.
Based on The Animators, a 1975 short story by Sydney J. Bounds, the film takes place over the last 19 hours of a six month reconnaissance mission on the red planet. While the crew aren’t openly at loggerheads with one another, they’re all getting a bit fed up of each other’s company.
Right as they’re about to set off home, the discovery of a fossilised bacterial life-form piques their curiosity, and things quickly go south after one of their number dies of a virus contracted at the site of their discovery. As the virus spreads, the crew are quickly turned against one another as each of them scrambles for survival.
As many reviewers have remarked, the film’s first act is in much the same mode as Duncan Jones’ Moon, establishing the well-worn day-to-day grind of working on Mars. Director Ruairi Robinson has made an awful lot out of a very small budget – reportedly £7m – and the special effects and model shots look gorgeous. Not that the barren Martian surface is meant to look pretty, but the understated yet actually-very-well-done actualisation of the setting does wonders for the film.
The team dynamic also owes something to Alien, and the cast all turn in rounded and believable turns. Liev Schreiber plays our protagonist, Campbell, a technician who’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder even before things kick off, and this is a really good role for him. He’s especially strong when paired with Romola Garai’s Lane, and the mentor relationship between the two feels uncommonly well-written and performed.
The rest of the crew start out in stock roles – Olivia Williams is a bitchy scientist who is openly disdainful of her colleagues, Johnny Harris plays a somewhat mealy mouthed shrink to the expedition members, and Elias Koteas brings a bit of gravitas to the part of the mission’s skipper.
But there’s still room for manoeuvrability, to keep things fresh. Once monsters besiege our crew and things veer into more familiar survival horror territory, the characters prove to be refreshingly active, avoiding sitting still in the positions you expect them to inhabit once the generic trouble gets started.
Like John Carter, another Mars-set movie that was based on vintage source material, it’s quite intently rooted in classical sci-fi horror, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Screenwriter Clive Dawson doesn’t throw in many frills, but sometimes it’s nice to see a stripped-back, but solidly constructed B-movie.
As mentioned, there are shades of Carpenter’s The Thing in there too, but amidst all the paranoia, it never strays too far down that avenue. To Doctor Who fans, certain points may be more reminiscent of the 2009 David Tennant episode The Waters Of Mars, with story beats (a character’s helmet intercom relaying the peril that befalls other characters in their absence) and other signifiers (several of the monsters are wearing astronaut suits when they go gribbly, which recalls certain Steven Moffat episodes) recurring throughout, but the comparison is a favourable one.
There are a couple of beats that don’t quite ring true, such as the way in which Campbell and co seem to forget one of their colleagues – the audience certainly won’t have forgotten him that quickly, so his re-appearance at a pivotal moment in a darkened room is neither as intense or surprising as Robinson and Dawson obviously intended.
But for the most part, The Last Days On Mars is put together much better than many low-budget flicks in the survival horror genre, and while it doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeves in story terms, the cast (especially Schreiber and Garai) and the visuals are both strengths that make this one worth watching. The lack of any real marketing push from the distributors at Universal suggest that this might be a bargain bin fixture when it arrives on DVD, but if that’s where you find it, it’s one of the good ones.
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