For about 30 minutes, “The Last Days on Mars” hides its sci-fi antecedents well enough.
The desert-scapes of Jordan make for a passable Red Planet, the production designed space suits, space habitats (rocket fuselages) and six-wheeled rovers are convincing enough.
Then a scientist who thinks he’s found life turns out to be right. Only he gets infected. And “Alien” breaks through and “Mars” turns into a zombie movie with a better-than-its-pay-grade cast.
Liev Schreiber is Vincent, a pessimistic astronaut, one of eight just finishing up an exploratory tour. Olivia Williams (“An Education”) is very good as the brittle, irritable scientist hellbent on “not going back empty-handed.” Elias Koteas is the commander trying to keep the peace and Romola Garai (TV’s “Emma”) is the one scientist who seems to know that Vincent has a reason for being all glass-half-empty about everything.
They’re about to leave. Their relief ship is hours away. But Vincent grumps about “a six month commute on a floating coffin.”
Then there’s an accident in the middle of a discovery. And the commander has no sooner asked “You’re not going to do anything stupid?” when someone does something stupid.
That’s when the makeup people and gore-wranglers take over and this sharp looking but flat-footed thriller lurches off on overly familiar ground.
Williams, in an egomaniacal fury, is the best thing in it. But you can see why Schreiber was drawn to his role, too. Every decision is conflicted. Vincent expects the worst at every turn and is never disappointed. He’s not some grizzled space vet who’s seen it all. He’s a guy who is scared, who has nightmares and flashbacks to something that happened earlier. Garai and Koteas never let us see the fear. Which is a mistake.
The rest of the cast is merely “Who buys the Martian farm next?” fodder, and since director Ruairi Robinson hasn’t the film score or editing wherewithal to ratchet up the tension, we’re treated to strobing lights, bloody attacks and “The Living Dead” in space suits.
Though it rarely looks as malnourished as say, “Europa Report” or “Moon,” “Last Days on Mars” does show how starved of new ideas sci-fi cinema is. It’s a shame they wasted this cast on “Dawn of the Alien Dead.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Olivia Williams, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas
Credits: Directed by Ruairi Robinson, scripted by Clive Dawson, based on a Sidney Bounds short story. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:38
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