Film Review: The Last Days On Mars – Break-Up Day, Or Brains For Breakfast

May 20, 2014

By ALAN SWERDLOW

 

The Last Days On Mars / Directed by Ruairi Robinson / PG13

 

I am of the firm belief that there is very little that cannot be improved by the addition of extra zombies.  Zombies add zest, heft and bone-crunching, not to mention added grunts and cries of “Uuuuuuurrrrggghhhh”.  What’s not to like?   I am not alone in my belief – Seth Graham-Smith, author, came up with that whole set of rewrites of Jane Austen, with added zombies and other monsters.  It is a great sorrow to me that the projected film of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies never came to fruition.

My beliefs have been shaken somewhat by The Last Days On Mars, which starts out as a nifty little sci-fi thriller set in the not too distant future.   The zombies then enter and nothing is quite as good as it was.  Yes, I know, that’s normally the case.

The crew of the Tantalus base on Mars are in their final day of a six-month mission, packing up and readying the space station for the next crew.  With 19 hours to go, there’s some desultory chat about how pleasant it will be to see blue skies and green grass again, sure indication that things are about to go horribly wrong.  And they do.

Director Ruairi Robinson does a splendid job in his initial exposition, clearly setting up his characters and the various tensions that exist between them.  He also delineates the environment (exteriors were filmed in the Jordanian desert) and the geography of the base station, and the look of the piece is extremely plausible, despite the fact that it has all been achieved on a limited budget.  In fact, he nods to the commercialisation of future space research by having awnings and siding emblazoned not by NASA logos, but the names of various companies that have supplied products to this space mission  – I thought that a rather clever touch – since that’s the way things seem to be going.  And a very good afternoon to you, Mr Elon Musk!

I also like the inference that it has all been a rather boring, uneventful mission with no shattering discoveries or exploration, all of which gives us the feeling that this is how things will be and probably are on the International Space Station currently orbiting our planet.

Our team consists of the reasonable, solid team leader, the self-serving scientist, the amiable rookie, the medic and romantic interest, our hero (Liev Schreiber) with a past, the undistinguished bore and the acid-tongued bitch. The latter is played by Olivia Williams, who has cornered the market in playing vicious cows you’d most like to see eaten by a zombie.  You know, the kind of self-important, belligerent nasty with a huge chip, who lets fly with a zinger and then says “I believe in telling the truth” and is smug about it.

In fact all the characters are believable, and Robinson allows the audience to fill in the blanks, never overstating his hand. The problem is that zombies and zombiedom have been reduced to an endlessly reiterated trope, and it’s very difficult to be serious or sober about them.  There’s an inherent campiness to the concept, light years away from the origins in West Africa and Santaria beliefs, and try as he might, Robinson cannot shake our inherited perceptions despite all the hand-held camera work and attempts to make the monsters truly frightening, and he resorts to referencing some of the more profound and accomplished science fiction movies of the last  half century.

It all becomes a little tedious and predictable, though Robinson leaves us with a satisfyingly ambiguous resolution.  It’s not that it’s terrible or badly executed and starts out so well that I kept feeling like his headmaster, scrawling “not bad, but can do a lot better” on his report card.

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