The Last Days On Mars (2013)


I love science fiction. Not as much as my mate Julian, who will pretty much watch anything with a spaceship in it, but enough that I’ve seen a heck of a lot of sci-fi films and TV series. So the current mini-trend for “indie” sci-fi is pleasing – “Europa Report” (review coming soon), “Moon”, “Gravity” (okay, not really indie) and now this, among others, are trying to do interesting things with the genre. But does this one succeed?

At some unspecified point in the future, humankind’s got its act together enough to organise 6-month people-led missions to Mars. There’s 19 hours left before this crew’s trip is over and they get to go home, and it’s safe to say tensions are building among the crew. Kate (Olivia Williams) seems to be the most hated of the lot, but the desperation of some crew members to be the person who discovers life on Mars is causing everyone to be a bit stressed out. The first half hour of the film is really good, sketching out characters quickly and building a sense of tension well. The film cleverly shows the future to be a lot like the present – people have their petty jealousies about wanting to be the first person to find alien life, all their equipment is breaking down or worn out, and so on.

Without wanting to spoil it too much, they find something, and that’s when people start falling apart. Quite quickly, too. I can sort-of understand how big a deal it is to the characters, but you’d have to hope that these people would be subject to the strictest psychological profiling and testing before being sent out, and I just don’t believe some of them would have passed it. Also, one of them talks about going home to his young kids…would they let someone on a mission that lasted (with travel there and back) 18 months if they had young kids? But, this isn’t the moment where the film turns and becomes something rather odder. When a crew member, taken over by Martian bacteria and turned into some sort of weird space zombie, stabs one of his friends in the stomach with a screwdriver is when the film takes a lurch to the left.

If you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve seen “Dark Star”, the amazing John Carpenter sci-fi comedy. Well, “Last Days On Mars” is, for its first half, “Dark Star” played as drama, and its second half is “Dark Star” played as horror. It’s a surprisingly close fit, too. The one thing it doesn’t rip off is the timescale of the film – in “Dark Star”, they were years along into a seemingly never-ending mission, whereas in this they’re hours from getting to go home.

This film’s best and worst thing is its cast. Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams and Liev Schreiber are all long-term seasoned film pros, with Williams being the standout for her portrayal of a character who’d be a nagging unsympathetic shrew in lesser hands. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are lesser hands, and the gulf is immediately apparent when any of them interact with the A-team.

I can’t believe no low-budget film company has made “Space Zombies” yet which, if directed by a guy like Paul WS Anderson or Christopher Smith, would be amazing. Unfortunately, this just isn’t. The high water mark for real intelligent sci-fi remains “Solaris”, and while it’s a good thing that people are trying to do this sort of film again, it’d be nice if they were a bit better.