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CANNES – Resourcefully designed and shot on striking Jordan desert locations that stand in for a dust-choked Red Planet, The Last Days on Mars is an atmospheric chiller that unleashes zombie peril in space. Far more sober than that premise suggests, the unapologetically derivative sci-fi outing doesn’t have the scripting muscle to deliver on its early promise. But the solid cast keeps it reasonably gripping nonetheless. Its ambition alone will make this a useful calling card for Los Angeles-based Irish filmmaker Ruairi Robinson.
Nineteen hours from the end of a six-month research mission to Mars, the eight-man crew of Tantalus Base is dealing with frayed nerves and homesickness for green grass and blue skies. They also feel the deflating sense of having achieved nothing during their time there except laying the groundwork for an incoming second team to make the discoveries and grab the glory.
The establishing scenes are terrific, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan prowling the barren landscape in hazy light, and the visual effects team whipping up truly menacing dust storms accompanied by Max Richter’s score, by turns melodic, moody and urgent. There’s also a potent sense of the claustrophobia of people stationed in a remote outpost, tinged with notes of dread. Robinson is not shy about drawing inspiration from the cream of the genre, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, though comparison with Duncan Jones’ more recent Moon will be inevitable.
Science officer Aldrich (Olivia Williams) is everyone’s least favorite space sister, her professional frustrations with the mission making her abrasive company. Still troubled by an anxiety episode during the voyage, Campbell (Liev Schreiber) attempts to stay mellow as he counts the hours to departure, finding comfort in his flirty banter with young medic Lane (Romola Garai). Cool-headed Captain Brunel (Elias Koteas) just tries to keep the crew’s wound-up emotions under control.
When Russian officer Petrovich (Goran Kostic) encounters fossilized evidence in his lab research of a living organism, he says nothing to his colleagues. Unwilling to share the credit, he ventures outside to investigate, taking along Harrington (Tom Cullen) for backup, ostensibly to repair some equipment just as darkness is about to descend. But when Petrovich lifts a bacteria sample from the soil, a massive crater spontaneously forms, which spells bad news for everyone. Brunel leads a rescue foray to the site that brings more of the crew into contact with the virulent bacteria.
Based on Sydney J. Bounds’ short story The Animators, Clive Dawson’s screenplay sticks to the standard tropes and stock characters a little too rigorously. In the wake of the admittedly over-complicated Prometheus, it’s likely also that genre nuts will scoff at the relative banality of the alien life force, going, “Wait a minute…zombies?”
Despite that somewhat shopworn development, the charred, transformed crewmembers do pack some scares as they come rampaging through the base in pursuit of their untainted comrades, wielding whatever objects they can grab. But after the eerie composure of the earlier visuals, Ryan’s handheld camerawork is less effective at tracking the escalating chaos in confined spaces. These frenetic scenes are interspersed among quieter interludes, as survivors strategize or endure the agonizing wait to find out whether they’ve been infected.
There’s a rote quality to much of the more violent action, some of it messily handled, and the logic gets a little shaky. But the actors keep it engrossing, and Robinson maintains suspense. Schreiber nicely balances the internal panic of a man determined to stay alive until the rescue ship lands, at the same time struggling to control his fears. Koteas, Williams and Cullen all make strong impressions, and Garai is affecting as Lane fights the growing certainty that she’s been contaminated.
Focus Features is handling international on the modestly budgeted film, and while it’s unlikely to see breakout success, its capable cast plus some distinctive visuals should at least guarantee a minimum of theatrical light along with VOD traction.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Johnny Harris, Goran Kostic, Tom Cullen, Yusra Warsama
Production companies: Qwerty Films, Fantastic Films
Director: Ruairi Robinson
Screenwriter: Clive Dawson, based on the short story “The Animators” by Sydney J. Bounds
Producers: Michael Kuhn, Andrea Cornwell
Executive producers: Malcolm Ritchie, Christopher Collins, James Swarbick
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Jon Henson
Music: Max Richter
Editor: Peter Lambert
Costume designer: Richard Sale
Visual effects supervisor: Adam McInnes
Sales: Focus Features International
No rating, 99 minutes
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