Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Last Days on Mars: Dying to Leave the Red Planet

They were gypped out of those long promised canals, but there might just be some form of bacterial life on the Angry Red Planet.  Of course, that turns out to be a very bad thing in Ruair√≠ Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The first manned mission to Mars is about to head home, destined more for footnote status rather than lasting fame. However, at the eleventh hour, the ambitious Marco Petrovich thinks he may have unearthed the brass ring—bacterial life.  Unfortunately, a freak accident causes his death and leads to the apparent disappearance of another crew member. Yet much to everyone’s surprise, Petrovich and his colleague return to base a short time later.  Of course, they are not really alive—they are undead and spreading their infection the way zombies do.

Hoping to hold out until the scheduled arrival of their transport ship, the crew of the Tantalus Base applies their scientific expertise to the contagion, but it turns out to be a distinctly slippery biological agent.  Human nature also takes an ugly turn as the situation deteriorates. 

Right, so first contact is kind of rough.  Zombies on Mars might sound distinctly pulpy, but Robinson’s distinguished cast sells it with conviction.  Liev Schreiber brings instant credibility as the grizzled but psychologically damaged chief engineer Vincent Campbell.  Likewise, Romola Garai classes up the proceedings as his medic lover, Rebecca Lane.  Johnny Harris (from BBC America’s The Fades) has a natural talent for getting all panicky and twitchy on-screen.  Still, Olivia Williams overwhelms them all as the unrepentantly undiplomatic senior science officer, Kim Aldrich.

In a sense, Last Days is the more stylish and competent version of Roger Christian’s klutzy B-movie, Stranded.  Both achieve an effectively claustrophobic vibe, but the former is a vastly more polished package overall.  Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (probably best known for his work with Andrea Arnold) gives everything an appropriately dark, crimson-hued look, while production designer Jon Henson’s team creates a convincing near future, other worldly environment.

Last Day’s thematic predecessors are many in number and vary considerably in quality.  Nevertheless, the combination of Mars, zombies, and some first class British characters actors guarantees a certain level of genre entertainment.  What screenwriter Clive Dawson’s adaptation of Sydney J. Bounds’ short story lacks in originality is largely made up for through Robinson’s slick execution.  Recommended for horror flavored science fiction (and vice versa), Last Days on Mars opens this Friday (12/6) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.