PLOT: An international team of explorers on Mars find their lives in danger when an alien virus causes them to perish... and then come back to life .
REVIEW: What an interesting, frustrating case THE LAST DAYS ON MARS is: A sci-fi thriller that initially appears poised to reach for the stars, and ultimately settles for the bottom of the B-movie barrel. The creative team behind this endeavor is not dumb, yet they’ve made what turns out to be a pretty dumb movie. There will be people who appreciate its decent into derivative horror flick territory, but I for one felt let down after such a promising opening.
The first act of LAST DAYS is so intriguing that I found myself inching forward with every passing moment, becoming more and more convinced that director Ruairi Robinson and screenwriter Clive Dawson (working off a short story titled “The Animators”) had crafted something in the same vein as MOON or ALIEN (or even this past summer’s ambitious EUROPA REPORT). We’re dropped in, as the title suggests, on the last day of a Mars mission; eight crewmembers have been toiling away on the Red Planet for months, and are sadly about to go home empty handed. The international team is handling the failure of the mission with various degrees of acceptance and anger. Aldrich (Olivia Williams), for example, is a scientist seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown thanks to the lack of discovery made on the planet, while American astronaut Vincent (Liev Schreiber) is resigned and looking forward to going home - even though the trip will take six months and he had an unfortunate freak-out a little while back that still haunts him.
As luck would have it (bad luck, but luck all the same), Russian scientist Marko (Goran Kostic) finds a bacteria in the final hours before liftoff. Intent on going discovering proof of life on the planet, the Russian and another crewmember venture off on their own to grab more samples, thus becoming heroes and rendering the mission a monumental success. But things go awry very quickly when the Russian is swallowed up after a chasm opens beneath him. The rest of the team scrambles to save him, but he’s apparently lost for good; a final grave punctuation on an already demoralizing expedition
Soon after this event, the movie made its true motives clear, and the interesting sci-fi stuff, coupled with a fairly compelling character study of people on their last nerve in the deepest reaches of outer space, is all set aside in favor of Zombie Astronauts! You read that right - the bacteria found turns out to be supremely bad news, and anyone infected with it essentially becomes a shambling, bloodthirsty corpse. Thus THE LAST DAYS ON MARS turns into THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD IN SPACE, with zombies wielding power tools and the survivors barricading themselves in any room that doesn’t have an alien virus-infected carcass in it.
Of course, I’m a horror movie nut and love me some zombies, so if you pitch “Zombie Astronauts” to me, I won’t act like I’m above it. Admittedly, THE LAST DAYS ON MARS does feature some cheap thrills involving the ghouls, and its second half is no worse than your run-of-the-mill sci-fi horror piece. Thing is, once the film becomes a full-on horror flick, it hits autopilot, dishing out the same old zombie movie tropes we’ve seen time and time again. For a movie that showed such promise with its engrossing set-up and believable characters, it’s a real shame LAST DAYS doesn’t have much to add to the familiar “ALIEN ripoff” subgenre, with people getting picked off one by one. The characters fall into familiar patterns as well: We get the guy who doesn’t want to be a hero suddenly thrust into a leadership position, while another character proves himself to be a sniveling weakling and back-stabber. The finale offers a predictable race-against-time scenario that could have been lifted from a number of 80s schlockfests.
The film gradually descends from captivating to goofy to monotonous. And yet, this is an impressively-mounted production. Made for under $10 million, LAST DAYS has sets and costumes that could have come from a movie with five times that budget. As far as the exteriors are concerned, Jordan stands in for the Red Planet and the effect is rather perfect, accentuated by Robbie Ryan’s sterling cinematography. And Robinson, this his feature directorial debut, is absolutely capable in every regard; the moodier, dramatic pieces early on are handled with confidence, while the horror movie shocks in the second half are done with crisp efficiency. He’s also assembled a very good cast, with everyone turning in solid performances.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS is a mixed bag, overall, and is sure to have an equal share of detractors and supporters. (Cult classic - or at the very least guilty pleasure - status is not out of the question.) It’s possible that I’ll like it more upon a second viewing, with the knowledge that it eventually favors nonsense instead of intelligence.