Retro Review: THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (2013){0}

Cinematic appreciation is all a matter of perspective. To some viewers, the new indie sci-fi horror flick The Last Days on Mars will feel like a patently familiar or even simplistic rehash of themes, ideas, settings, and characters we’ve all seen before. To others, including me, The Last Days on Mars will come across more like one of those (virtually countless) sci-fi (mis-)adventure films from the 1950s; films in which the promise of visiting a distant planet was almost as interesting as the people and the creatures who spend time on that planet. 

Plot-wise, Ruairi Robinson’s movie is certainly nothing revolutionary: it’s the story of eight people who are spending their last 18 hours on the surface of Mars before packing up and heading for home. Obviously this is not how it works out. Given the film’s title and tone, it should come as no surprise to learn that the crew of the Mars expedition stumbles across something deadly. To Mr. Robinson’s credit, The Last Days on Mars does not offer a standard monster as the threat. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that one foolhardy explorer discovers a biological life — yes, on Mars — and it’s more like a virus than a monster.

Thus begins a fairly standard but consistently well-made “outer space body count” movie, one in which cool actors like Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams, Liev Schreiber, and Romola Garai get to do all sorts of heroic and desperate things while trying to keep one step ahead of a full-blown invasion of Bio-Martian Madness. (Some may see “space zombies” once The Last Days of Mars gets rolling, but they’re more like the furious “rage” victims of 28 Days/Weeks Later. Either way, they’re freaky, insane, and very dangerous.) 

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film has surprisingly solid special effects for a low-key indie import, and the aforementioned cast adds a lot of professionalism, but Robinson and screenwriter Clive Dawson (working from a story by Sydney Bounds) also take care to include a few smart concepts and moments of legitimate humanity — in between all of the Martian virus fits and nasty violence, I mean. Little touches like the “bad” characters doing something mildly heroic and other ones sharing quiet moments amidst the carnage. Simple stuff, but so many genre filmmakers don’t even bother with mild character development. The extra effort pays off here.

Much like this year’s (very good) Europa Report, The Last Days on Mars adopts sort of an earnest excitement about the idea of deep space exploration, but not at the expense of a simple, straightforward, scary space story. Both films exhibit an old-school sci-fi charm that was common in the 1950s (and then again in the 1970s), but isn’t all that prevalent in today’s genre films. Along with Alfonso Cuaron’s supremely satisfying Gravity, Europa Report and The Last Days on Mars feel like a triple feature homage to “old-fashioned” science fiction cinema. And that’s always a nice thing to see.