Film Review: The Last Days on Mars

Tight ensemble cast can’t quite save this tiresome frightener about astronauts on Mars fighting off a zombie bacteria.

Outer space is the new haunted house. There was a time when films about first contact involved actual contact—sure, everybody might end up running in terror from the laser beams, but there was at least some attempt at communication. Failing outright conflict, filmmakers wanted to show mankind coming to grips with some unfathomable extraterrestrial phenomenon (2001 to Mission to Mars). But more recently, from Prometheus to Europa Report, humanity ventures to distant planets only to end up kibble for varied alien nasties. That dulling trend continues in Ruairi Robinson’s imagination-challenged astronauts-meet-zombies flick The Last Days on Mars.

We show up on Mars in the last 19 hours of a manned mission that’s spent six months in cramped quarters performing ultimately inconclusive survey samples. By the time the film picks up on the Aurora mission, everyone is starting to come apart at the seams. The two most empathic astronauts, Vincent (Liev Schreiber) and Rebecca (Romola Garai), are always catching a glance and looking out for the other, rolling their eyes at the abrasiveness of researcher Kim (Olivia Williams), who can’t accept the fact that they’re about to go home empty-handed. Less able to handle that fact is Marko (Goran Kostic), who ventures out at the last minute to do one final test. Night is falling and everybody just wants to get out of there. That’s when the ground collapses under Marko and he’s assumed dead. Of course, when he appears again later, he’s not quite dead, and feeling a little snacky.

There’s a solid core of a story here that the filmmakers could have built into something truly unsettling, without going full-bore into power-drill-to-the-stomach horror. (Those zombies get inventive with their weaponry.) The claustrophobic lifeboat atmosphere is densely felt from the first scene. Every performer here is carrying every day of those previous six months on their face and look like they’re already several weeks past cracking up. Elias Koteas’ shell-shocked captain is particularly effective; after the crisis becomes apparent, his drift into paralysis is frighteningly believable. The stark camerawork by Robbie Ryan—who crafted some memorably bleak landscapes out of ordinary material in Fish Tank—adds to the sense of being at the edge of the universe and about to lose one’s bearings completely.

That Robinson took the time to lay such a solid groundwork for this grind of a horror show is welcome at first. By the time dreadful things start happening to the crew, several have already become people that it’s possible to care about. But the transition from tense ensemble drama to full-tilt zombie chase film is a rough one to handle at the best of times, and this is not what one would call first-rate material. Clive Dawson’s screenplay, while smart in outlining its characters, can’t cobble together a story more interesting than Survive Until the Rescue Mission Arrives. The second half of this feels-longer-than-it-is film is littered with dramatically convenient breakdowns in communication or preposterous advancements in zombie intelligence. (They’re unable to speak and can breathe the Martian atmosphere, but still retain the ability to utilize complex explosives and correctly sabotage advanced computer equipment.)

More perplexing still is the film’s insistence on imparting great dramatic importance to a troubling incident that Vincent keeps flashing back to. By the time it’s explained (sort of), the only question is: Why was this made to seem so crucial to the story? Schreiber plays the role with a determination that touches on greatness, which makes it almost harder to watch him commit so much effort to such ultimately trite material. Even worse to consider is that the film was supposedly pitched as United 93 in space. If the astronauts had endured months of living together in tight quarters only to descend into madness and violence at the very end simply because of their own human weaknesses, that would have been a horror movie. Throwing the whole thing over to zombies can’t feel like anything but a cop-out.