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Non-Review Review: The Last Days on Mars

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

There’s very little original to be found in The Last Days on Mars. Ruarí Robinson has constructed a gigantic homage to science-fiction horror, taking great pride in setting up the familiar clichés and working through the obligatory tropes. There are any number of shout-outs and references built into The Last Days on Mars, so much so that the film seems to struggle to stand on its own two feet.

At the same time, there’s an undeniably trashy charm to The Last Days on Mars. There’s a sense of Robinson’s abiding affection and enthusiasm for the conventions he evokes, the movies he homages. Nobody watching the film will confuse it for a trailblazing or original piece of work; however, it works surprisingly well as a gigantic tribute to pulpy science-fiction B-movies.

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Robinson never tries to hard to hide his inspirations when it comes to filming The Last Days on Mars. The movie’s production design, the notion of time-lapse communication and the countdown until the rescue team arrives can’t help but evoke Duncan Jones’ superb Moon. The motion-tracking system employed by our heroes looks like it might have been purchased second-hand from the set of Aliens.

In fact, one sequence heavily riffs on a suspenseful scene from James Cameron’s science-fiction war film as our lead navigates a claustrophobic vent to aid in an escape attempt. A sequence of our hero attempting to send a message to the space ship in orbit as the power fails around him can’t help but conjure memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the lighting boards reflected in the space suit visor.

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While The Last Days on Mars certainly doesn’t merit comparison with these genre classics, it is apparent that Robinson has great cinematic taste. (The plot and structure of the episode also call to mind one of the BBC’s 2009 Doctor Who specials, The Waters of Mars; the movie has more gore but less wit.) Indeed, most of the film looks best if treated as an affectionate tribute to old-fashioned B-movies about space explorers who inevitably discover that the cosmos is filled with terror and horror on a scale beyond mankind’s capacity to imagine.

In keeping with this philosophy, the characters populating The Last Days on Mars repeatedly make stupid decisions. They investigate strange findings without informing headquarters. They split up and leave crew members isolated and alone after horrific accidents have occurred. Nobody ever seems too bothered that their former colleagues aren’t responding to communication… at least not until it’s too late.

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You get a sense that the training for the mission might have been more efficient had the team sat down to watch The Thing together, and made notes about how not to react to a strange phenomenon from another planet. This might seem like a weakness in the film, but that overlooks the sheer pulpy charm of it all. Robinson has structured The Last Days on Mars as an old-school goofy science-fiction horror, and has decided to play pretty much all of the tropes remarkably straight.

As such, absolutely everything is just window dressing to Robinson’s effective direction, the movie’s funereal atmosphere and the wonderful production design. Even the nature of what is happening is decidedly unclear. Members of the expedition are infected by some sort of alien entity, but we learn nothing more about it than the fact that it is a bacteria. And yet, despite the fact that the infection is a bacteria, it is able to propagate itself, directing the host to use blunt instruments and even explosives.

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And the movie remains frustratingly ambiguous on this point. Is this creature trying to escape Mars? There’s the implication that the organism needs water to survive, so the Earth must present a pretty appetising target. At the same time, it seems more focused on brutally slaughtering the team and destroying the base than making any sincere effort to leave the surface. If it weren’t for the sense that Robinson is intentionally evoking trashy and questionable science-fiction B-movies, this would become irritating.

Instead, the movie’s candid decision to embrace that sort of storytelling style helps it to all make sense. It doesn’t matter what this creature is, what it wants, or how it is able to use complex explosive devices and stabbing implements. These are just space!zombies… or, even more broadly, just space!monsters. They are things that our leads have to be afraid of, and have to escape, and that’s about the end of it.

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There are quite a few points where The Last Days on Mars is disappointing. The characters never really seem two-dimensional, despite three solid performances from Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas and Liev Schreiber. One wonders what might be the point of installing a security alert mode that makes it more difficult to see what is going on inside your space base built on the surface of another planet. The more scientific-minded members of the audience might wonder why Mars gravity seems equivalent to that on Earth, when it should be just over a third of ours.

These are all questions that will bother viewers staring too hard at the film. It’s to Robinson’s credit that he keeps things ticking over and moving at a decent enough pace that these fairly significant problems never overwhelm the movie. The Last Days on Mars might not be a classic piece of science-fiction, but it’s a charming trashy sci-fi B-movie. The fact that it is so candid about this is surprisingly endearing.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

3 Responses

  1. Not much originality here at all, but I was still interested, which is mainly due to the cast and what it is that they try to do here. Good review Darren.

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