Did you hear the one about the joint American-British-Chinese-Irish mission to Mars — the one that didn’t actually include any Chinese astronauts? No? Well, prepare to discover it in Last Days on Mars, a thoroughly average science fiction adventure opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 13.
Directed by Ruairí Robinson, Last Days on Mars is headlined by Liev Schreiber, last heard in these parts narrating Federal Reserve documentary Money for Nothing. Schreiber plays Vince Campbell, one of an octet of astronauts who’ve spent the last six months conducting scientific research on the Red Planet: collecting soil samples, monitoring the weather, and trying to prove that Marvin the Martian really exists. Their tour of duty almost up, the group eagerly awaits the imminent arrival of space shuttle Aurora and a restful return trip to Earth.
Complications ensue in the last nineteen hours of their wait (the film would more accurately be entitled Last “Day” on Mars), when team member Markos (Goran Kostic) makes the startling discovery that one of his test tube samples exhibits signs of bacterial cell division. It looks like there really is life on Mars, and Markos (as well as enthusiastic fellow astronaut Kim Aldrich, icily portrayed by the excellent Olivia Williams) suddenly start to reconsider this whole going home thing. With a discovery of this magnitude, perhaps the mission should be extended!
Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t sit well with other crew members, including nervous nelly Harrington (Tom Cullen) and grumpy sod Irwin (Johnny Harris), both of whom are quite eager to once again set foot on good ol’ terra firma. The point becomes moot, however, when the cellular life transforms into something much deadlier: a disease that strips flesh from bone and turns Mars missionaries into zombie-like killing machines. Uh oh.
It eventually falls to Vince to end the menace, because none of his compatriots – including ship’s commander Charles Brunel (a particularly grizzled Elias Koteas) and Rebecca Lane (an unrecognizable Romolo Garai) – are up to the task. Can our chipmunk-cheeked hero save the day, or will the deadly bacteria soon jet their way across space and infect the big blue marble?
Modern science fiction films set beyond Earth tend to fall into one of two categories: talk pieces such as this year’s pretentious and dull Europa Report and 2009’s pretentious but enjoyable Moon, or splatter epics in which gooey extraterrestrials dispatch victims and scuttle their way through ubiquitous air vents. (Note to spacecraft designers: get rid of the vents. They only make it easier for the space aliens.) Last Days on Mars tries bravely to split the difference, no doubt driven by its presumably low budget (the film was co-produced by the British Film Institute and the Irish Film Board).
It’s a reasonably entertaining hour and a half and the cast are all quite good, but you’re unlikely to remember much about the film once you leave the theater – especially as its damp squib ending is completely forgettable. If you’re like me, though, you can always spend your post-movie reverie pondering why the Chinese flag figures so prominently in the film. Ah, sweet mystery of life on Mars.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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