“The Last Days on Mars” (2013)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Last Days on Mars" poster

Ever since Neil Armstrong and company traversed the moon’s surface, Mars has been the next celestial body on mankind’s to-conquer list. But over the years, movies have given us reason after reason to get our asses away from the angry red planet, presenting it as a hotbed of rogue robots, colossal monsters, and that most abominable of creatures, Taylor Kitsch. The Last Days on Mars isn’t about to do its namesake world any favors either, with its rouge-tinted landscapes serving as the backdrop for what a George A. Romero flick would look like in outer space. Surprisingly, though, this turns out to be one lean and mean little thriller, thanks to a cast that plays it straight and a director who knows just when to heighten the stakes where it counts.

In just shy of twenty hours, our first manned mission to Mars will have been a bust. Intrepid astronauts Vincent (Liev Schreiber), Kim (Olivia Williams), and their crewmates are understandably disappointed when it looks as if they’ll be heading home empty-handed…until a colleague makes a shocking discovery at the last minute. Signs of microscopic life have been found, little bacteria-like buggers that just might end up making the whole trip worth it. But when two of the crew are exposed to the germ, their wait for a ride back to Earth turns into a fight for survival. The infection spreads from astronaut to astronaut, transforming them into bloodthirsty shells of their former selves. As their numbers begin to dwindle, those lucky enough to avoid the virus rally behind Vincent, who must set his personal demons aside in order to lead his fellow explorers to safety or die trying.

The world of low-budget science fiction is a pretty hefty gamble, but The Last Days on Mars powers through just fine. While this was blessed with more cash than similar genre productions are often afforded, it keeps a close eye on its pennies, making sure the story’s ambitions aren’t beyond what can be properly pulled off. The Last Days on Mars is just content with being a good, old-fashioned monster movie (and a rather expediently-assembled one, at that). It’s a very economical endeavor, as director Ruairi Robinson gives us viewers all we need to know about the setting, the characters, and whatever background info is necessary for us to get plenty freaked out as soon as possible. He has the movie paced too quickly for plot holes or lapses in logic to settle in right away, and without giving away the direction our story comes to take, he creates a suspenseful atmosphere from a situation in which everyone on screen seems to be boned six ways to Sunday.

The Last Days on Mars is, at its heart, a siege flick, one whose premise you buy into without terribly much technical wizardry having to be employed. A good deal of its success is due to the actors, and although one wishes their characters left a slightly more meaningful impression (seriously, anyone could’ve played these roles), this cast still finds ways to keep the audience on its toes. Not only are there no major issues in the way of us caring about anyone’s fate, the movie likes to surprise us with where their arcs go, as saviors and cowards emerge from unlikely places. Schreiber leads this ensemble with the right touch of stern authority, not too serious but not stopping to wink at the camera every five minutes. He’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast that follows suit, one rounded out with the likes of Williams, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, and others who are up to the task of convincing us that space zombies are running amok.

I dug The Last Days on Mars, but the way it fulfills genre requirements and little more is a bit of a letdown. It’s just jokey enough, just scary enough, and just gory enough, which is fine, though it does make you wonder what things could’ve been, had the film pushed itself a little further. Still, The Last Days on Mars is fun sci-fi fare with a horror flair, its thrills delivered consistently and its mood nice and claustrophobic.