“A lot of things need fixing around here…”
Winning the cinematic lottery by somehow getting into the Cannes film festival, and then being hoisted by its own petard by the festival press for merely being workmanlike and prosaic, The Last Days On Mars is the feature film debut of Irish jack-of-all-trades Ruairi Robinson; he was writer, director, visual effects artist, editor, and sometimes actor in an impressive body of short films produced in the past decade. I suppose if you are going to steal, take from the best. The Last Days on Mars is an unabashedly derivative cocktail of the the Alien franchise – particularly the Ridley Scott and James Cameron entries – as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing and the original Night of the Living Dead. The cardinal difference is that screenplay fails to be about anything substantial beyond the ‘panic attack’ nature of trying to run away in an area of such isolation and limited supply chain. At one point I was kind of pining that the whole film would be a space Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge with Liev Schreiber dying a slow asphyxiation in cryosleep gone awry on his way to Mars, if only to make everything add up to … something. Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t.
With a mere 19 hours remaining until extraction in a 6 month science expedition to Mars a small team of scientists suffer acute frustration from a lack of exciting findings, a dwindling amount supplies and electricity in their functional, but hardly fancy base-camp, and a bit of the old cabin fever. The stalwart and levelheaded tour-of-duty commander, Captain Brunel (Elias Koteas, playing a well-meaning Canadian leader here) has the job of herding international kittens as the diverse scientists squabble about ‘away time’ to get out in the field and maximize their research time, right down to the last minute of pick-up. When one of the researchers does actually discover a treasure trove of bacterial life below the surface in one of their digs, it is one of those ‘careful what you wish for’ situations and results in a some serious infection. Having never seen either of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies, apparently, basic quarantine is utterly bypassed. This is hardly surprising when one considers that these scientists cannot get along over even basic matters, such as whose name goes on a research paper or who makes a press announcement. When forced into a siege situation by what can only be described as space zombies, it’s the kind of panic driven failure to co-operate that George Romero did so well (and is often overlooked) with his own film debut.
But before we throw the film out the proverbial air-lock, the film has salvaged grace lurking in the on the macro and micro scale. These two things will either endear you to sit through to the end, or drive you bonkers that they were not applied to a better script. First There is the handsome production design, by the Game of Thrones people in Ireland and wide-vista locations in Jordan. The heat baked plains that evoke monument valley and the blinding martian sandstorms that slowly engulf everything and a change from spate of science fiction features shot in Iceland. This film is gorgeous at a mere fraction of the money lavished on Prometheus or Oblivion. If efficient spending and money clearly visible on-screen were the primary vector of pop-art (those metal yellow water bottles alone!), then this film would be a Warhol.