The Last Days on Mars (2013)

This modestly budgeted (around $12 milion) sci-fi thriller wears it’s inspirations and influences clearly on it’s space-suit sleeve. Film aficionado’s (aka Geeks) will readily pick up on the nods to, and ideas from, such seminal science fiction classics like Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), Aliens (1986) and ‘Sunshine’ (2007). ‘Aliens’, especially, stood out as a strong ‘vision motivator’, as I was able to pick out numerous ‘borrowings’ from The Best Movie EVER Made’. Many of the camera angles echoed Cameron’s subtle ‘hand-held’ motif; a style that worked beautifully in ’86 (and still today) to give a certain ‘immediacy’ to the difficult and terrifying proceedings. It works here too.
The story, as many of these types of flicks do, opens in the last stretch of a long and harrowing mission on the surface of Mars. A multi-national group of men and women are preparing to be relieved and sent back to earth. Despite looking forward to heading home, some of the crew are having trouble seeing the mission as anything but a scientific failure…and push to cram as much research into last remaining hours as possible. One of these crew members. a slippery Russian scientist (of course…damn Russkies! ), heads to a remote research site under false pretenses. Once at the site, things go haywire as a deep fissure swallows a large portion of the area, taking the pesky Russian scientist with it. Moments before the planet ate him, the Russian had just made the most monumental discovery EVER; multi-celled microbial life. Take a guess where the film’s ‘conflict’ stems from. Once the rest of the crew get involved trying to make sense of what is happening, the effects of the new life-form become apparent (if not it’s ‘workings’), and in short order…this movie becomes ‘Space Zombies on Mars!!!’.
Ordinarily, I would say/write such a thing with the utmost sarcasm, but in this case, I throw it out this in more of a *High 5* kinda way. This concept is actually done pretty well here. Sure, all the hallmarks of THIS type of flick are present and accounted for but they’re obviously done out of fondness and respect for the source material that the film-makers are clearly emulating.

-Desperate, frightened people trying to survive ‘alien’ terror, in naturally hostile surroundings? Check!

– Believable science fiction environment that seems like a logical extrapolation of our world today? Check!

– Inexplicably strobey emergency lighting that does more harm than good? Check!

–¬†Obligatory ‘let’s slowly move through darkened air ducting/tunnel to avoid monsters’ scene? Check!

-A self-serving betrayal in a time of tension and peril by a traitorous bastard of a crew member? Check!

And the list goes on.
Once more, this is not a complaint. Many of the ‘Alien on a…’ copy-cats sucked, and played as nothing more than a cheap cash-grab aimed at The Ignorant and The Gullible (looking at YOU, ‘Creature’!). I’m sure some jaded cynic out there could argue the same thing for THIS film… but I don’t. I was impressed that I found myself sucked in and consistently entertained by what was flashing back at me from the screen.
One of the elements I thought worked well was the initial, mundane interactions of the crew, before the shit hit the fan. They felt like people who had been cooped up together for FAR too long, and the strain was beginning to show. There’s a scene where tempers boil over and two of the crew engage in an aggressive and stubborn argument in among the rest of the team. First off, I found the emotions in the sequence believable, and also noted that having it occur in among the others was an ‘economical’ way to establish individuals based on how they each dealt with the situation. A couple familiar and talented faces turn up, notably Liev Schreiber (Scream 2) as the panic-attack prone tech ‘Vince’, and Elias Koteas (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) as the ‘firm but fair’ mission commander ‘Brunel’. A couple other faces were readily familiar…but the names escape me. They were good…and did what they needed to do.
The comparatively low budget was well used in this Irish/UK production and it looks as though every dollar made it on screen. First off, the choice to shoot the Martian exteriors in the deserts of Jordan was a terrific idea. Some location scout had apparently been paying attention to the beautiful HD images that the Mars rovers have been sending back, because Jordan, quite simply, looks like Mars! A couple color and lighting tweaks and…Voila! Instant Martian landscape! The base camp looked cool and believable, as did the two weird and realistic 6 wheeled ‘crawler’ vehicles.
Another area where the time and money showed was the CG portions showing space craft in orbit and near the surface. There are some damn fine shots and compositions to be discovered here.
If I had to aim for some Negatives, I would have to say that a little more information on WHY the infected crew members suddenly degenerated into kill-crazy psychos with gnarly black faces and a tendency to take long, suitless strolls across the Martian landscape would’ve been nice. They were nothing more than relentlessly snarling monsters that just ‘Stalk, Stalk…Attack!’d everyone in sight. A little like another recent sci-fi epic wannabe, ‘Prometheus’ (I love ya, Ridley…but what the fuck?!). Only here, it’s forgivable…somehow. On one side of the coin, NOT explaining the mechanisms of the ‘horror’ does add a certain entertaining ambiguity, but on the other…it can come across as a bit lazy or cheap. I’m on the fence about THIS with this flick, and I think that it bounces back and forth between the two.
All in all, I found ‘The Last Days on Mars’ to be a well-constructed science fiction thriller that tapped nicely into a sub-genre that I’m particularly fond of (‘Alien on a…’). The production design and certain ideas were top notch and surprisingly engrossing while the cast seemed genuinely invested in the story they were trying to tell. I feel that it could’ve easily had a good run with an honest theatrical release, as opposed to the piddly lil idea to just slip it out as a Direct to DVD/VOD showing. If you’re a fan of science-fiction/horror hybrids, this’ll do the trick for ya.