Last Days On Mars


Reviewed by: David Graham

"A stunning doom-laden score manages to imbue even underwhelming moments with a sense of both unease and unexpected pathos."

An admirably straight-faced melding of Alien-esque sci-fi and survival horror, Irishman Ruairi Robinson's debut may be derivative but it's blessed with an impressive multi-national cast and technically there's plenty of meat on its bones. There are echoes of Moon in the elegant, lo-fi design, and John Carpenter's not the only Ghost Of Mars lingering beneath the shaky concept, but Robinson manages to create a pervasive atmosphere (if not actual tension), and while it never amounts to anything more than a classy B-movie it at least doesn't outstay its welcome.

Nearing the end of an apparently fruitless six month forage for samples that might give evidence of life on Mars, the landing crew of the Aurora are feeling disillusioned with their expedition when a last-ditch discovery is made by one of their greedy-for-glory number. Going against protocol to collect their bounty, the scientist uncovers more than he bargained for, exposing his crew-mates to a deadly Martian organism in the process. As they try to comprehend the threat they're facing, the destructive force takes its toll on their resources, leaving their escape options increasingly limited and paranoia running rampant.

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Robinson wears his influences proudly on his sleeve from the get-go, predictably referencing everyone from Kubrick to Scott while distinguishing himself through imaginative use of his deceptively meagre budget. The Martian locales are genuinely other-worldly without seeming outlandish, while the interiors owe an obvious debt to the classic antiseptic styling of every sci-fi flick since 2001 but still teem with detail that makes them feel both lived-in and evocative of a not-too-distant future. While the script skimps on specifics, there's just enough well-integrated observation as to how everything works to keep the setting just the right side of believable.

Credibility is also boosted by the stellar cast, Liev Schrieber bringing his usual gravitas to a role that's a little more rounded than the genre's usual heroic fare, with the likes of Elias Koteas and Weekend's Tom Cullen proving effectively sympathetic and panic-stricken in nicely fleshed-out support. Even more impressive, for once here's a sci-fi/horror that harks back to Alien in acing the Bechdel test, with Romola Garai and Yusra Warsama more than holding their own against the men. It's Olivia Williams, though, who steals every scene she storms through (even if she's given disappointingly short shrift in the end), her acerbic put-downs and hunger for success balanced by a sense that her bitchiness is a necessary evil in a world where men still have the majority of control.

A stunning doom-laden score manages to imbue even underwhelming moments with a sense of both unease and unexpected pathos: it's reminiscent of Cliff Martinez's memorably mood-setting work on Soderbergh's Solaris, arguably doing more to jangle nerves than the situations deserve. Likewise, the cinematography and direction is way classier than you'd expect, even if all the moves are recognisably borrowed from the grand-daddies of the genre. It's a slick production for sure, it's just a shame there's not more going on to do justice to.

There's a vague feeling of something missing - references to an accident on the way to Mars are made without further elaboration, and the relationships between the characters need a little too much guesswork to be as substantial as they should be (it's unclear who's meant to be romantically entangled with whom, if at all). When the dust settles, there's simply not enough in the way of sustained suspense or original set-pieces to distinguish this from the likes of Apollo 13, which at least had a more focused premise and exploited the found footage format in a novel fashion. Not enough is made of the central menace, and come the ambiguous ending, there's only a curious feeling of what could've been given a little more commitment to being either schlock or 'hard' sci-fi.

For all its flaws though, this definitely marks Robinson out as one to watch. If he can drop the shakey-cam and be clearer with his intentions next time out, his sophomore feature should see him fulfill his abundant potential. Horror fans might find this a little lacking in the thrill department, and it's not quite as cerebral as its somber tone might lead you to expect but it's a refreshing and absorbing debut that's just not quite the sum of its parts.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2014
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Astronauts working on Mars gradually fall prey to a mysterious force.
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Director: Ruairi Robinson

Writer: Clive Dawson, based on the short story by Sydney J Bounds

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Tom Cullen

Year: 2013

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: UK


Cannes 2013

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