Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien sure has a lot to answer for. Not only did it (along with James Cameron’s Aliens) kick off a franchise of diminishing return sequels, but it also redefined the sci-fi/horror subgenre in a way no one has ever been able to live up to since. Before Alien, sci-fi horror flicks were cheapies for kiddes. Fun and insubstantial were the name of the game. Then Alien came along and all of a sudden the genre was breeding ground for potential blockbusters and with the exception of John Carpenter’s summertime-bomb-turned-cult-classic The Thing, no film has come close to matching it. All of which brings us to the British major-mini indie Last Days On Mars. The title and first five minutes or so suggest a thoughtful science fiction flick, but almost instantly it turns into a simple genre romp that should have been called Space Zombies. First time director Ruairi Robinson at least deserves credit for delivering the space zombie film that probably should have been made at some point in the 80s. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a good, down n’ dirty sci-fi/horror yarn filled with impressive production values, grounded performances, and plenty of space zombie goo splattered around. The flick is if nothing else a good time and that’s all it really had to be.
Things start out on an appropriately dour note with space commander Liev Schreiber and his team wrapping up a mission on Mars that has been decidedly uneventful. Beautiful Brit Olivia Williams whines that it was all a waste of time, while semi-depressed gravity specialist Elias Koteas (aka Casey Jones) is just relieved that nothing went wrong. Then smartypants scientist Goran Kostic announces something no one saw coming; she finds living bacteria cells and the supposedly dead planet. Excited that something finally happened, the crew race out to grab a sample of their groundbreaking bacteria and well… it turns out Mars bacteria and humans don’t mix. Put em’ together and you get space zombies. From there, the film rounds out exactly as you’d expect. One by one, the crew is turned into marching corpses who want nothing more than to infect their former friends. All the claustrophobia and isolation of a space setting is milked for its maximum suspense potential, while gore and chase scenes are doled out liberally. The Last Days On Mars script certainly won’t be bringing home accolades for originality, but the flick does what it needs to do efficiently and effectively.
As far as directorial debuts go, Irish feature filmmaking virgin Ruairi Robinson establishes he’s got some talent even if he didn’t exactly deliver a calling card announcing a major new filmmaker. In the early going, Robinson carefully and leisurely introduces his characters and world with technical skill and welcome restraint. Mixing Jordan-as-Mars location shooting with some impressive CGI, the space setting feels impressively real and lived in. The cast of character actors turn stock screenwriting types into empathetic characters (particularly Schreiber, Williams, and Koteas) in a way that gently places the audience right under the hammer about to be dropped. Then the first space zombie arrives and shoves a power drill into the belly of an innocent astronaut. After that, the film devolves into a series of scenes where characters run through corridors filled with flashing lights and creepily impersonal steel. Every corner they turn reveals a space zombie that just won’t stay dead no matter how many times you bash it with a blunt object. In other words, it’s Alien rehashed from top to bottom. Thankfully, it’s also a decent one.
Since it sticks to a 34-year-old movie playbook so rigidly, Last Days On Mars is a pretty easy flick to dismiss and many will. However, if you’re a genre movie fan who expects B-movies to deliver the expected goods well rather than reinventing the wheel every time, there is plenty to enjoy. Predictable though the plot may be, the visuals are stunning for an indie British production and what Robinson lacks in ingenuity, he more than makes up for in consistency. Last Days On Mars provides a familiar ride with technical skill, effective suspense, and strong acting. It would be nice to pretend we live in a world where all those qualities are expected from a genre movie, but they aren’t. Robinson may not have set his ambitions particularly high on his first feature, but he wisely wrote checks he knew he could cash. The film is fun and passes by in a rush that is undeniably satisfying. Sure, you might struggle to remember what happened a day or even an hour after the credits roll, but at least it’s not an outright failure in any obvious way. This is a solid B-movie in every sense of the term and sometimes that’s enough. With no major blockbuster to dominate the multiplexes this week, Last Days On Mars is worth the effort to seek out and Robinson has definitely proven that he can be handed the keys to direct a genre movie whenever he pleases. Let’s just hope the next one offers something unexpected.