Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #605
Number of Views: One
Release Date: 20 May 20, 2013 (Cannes), 19 September 19, 2013
Country of Origin: Ireland, United Kingdom, United States
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: Ruairí Robinson
Producers: Michael Kuhn, Andrea Cornwell
Screenplay: Clive Dawson
Based on The Animators by Sydney J. Bounds
Special Effects: Mark Holt
Visual Effects: Ed Bruce, Adam McInnes
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Score: Max Richter
Editing: Peter Lambert
Studios: British Film Institute, Irish Film Board, Qwerty Films, Fantastic Films
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Stars: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Johnny Harris, Olivia Williams, Goran Kostić, Tom Cullen, Yusra Warsama, Patrick Joseph Byrnes
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 David Bowie “Life on Mars”
 Max Ritcher “End Credits”
It saddens me to see such a dearth of interstellar horror on the market these days. Indeed, top guns Prometheus and Sunshine aside, I can only recall four noteworthy inclusions from the past twenty years. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, David Twohy’s Pitch Black, Christian Alvart’s Pandorum, and Gonzalo López-Gallego’s Apollo 18 were all pretty decent films in their own right but, when you subtract them from the equation, it’s been slim pickings for a sub-genre made popular back in 1979 when Ridley Scott first exited Earth’s orbit. With trailers recently surfacing for his upcoming Alien Covenant and turning heads worldwide, that could be all set to change but I certainly won’t be holding my breath. Perhaps it’s true what they say – In space, no one can hear you scream.
It comes as little surprise to me that these movies are so woefully thin on the ground as they’re generally burdened with massive production costs and, by no means, guaranteed to recoup their outlay. That said, few stages are more primed for exploration than the vast ocean of emptiness that is outer space and, every time a filmmaker dares to go where so few men have gone before, I get all excitable and buckle in at the first available opportunity. So when I happened across Ruairí Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars while flicking through Netflix, I couldn’t help but perform an anti-gravity cart-wheel. Further inspection only heightened my anticipation as seasoned veterans the likes of Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, and Olivia Williams don’t make a habit of attaching their names to duds.
Irishman Robinson’s first full-length feature, based on the short story The Animators by Sydney J. Bounds, actually got off to a fairly decent start after unexpectedly securing itself a premiere screening at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. However, after receiving a limited theatrical release in the United States and the United Kingdom, it disappeared from trace faster than James T. Kirk when Uhura started walking sideways after coming down with a particularly prickly case of space crabs. Regrettably this appears to have totaled any hope it had of recovering its $10 million budget and it’s a crying shame as, while in no ways a bona fide classic, The Last Days on Mars does more than enough to justify its existence.
Set at the Tantalus Base outpost on the surface of the red planet around twenty years from now, it tells the tale of an eight-strong crew who have been stationed there for a number of months collecting specimens and are reaching the tail-end of their expedition, alas with precious little in the way of notable success. Led by cool-headed skipper Charles Brunel (Koteas), the crew are understandably growing increasingly frustrated with time running out although scientist Marko Petrović (Goran Kostić) takes it upon himself to defy orders and give this life on Mars gig one more crack before their planned departure.
Much to his delight, he manages to secure a promising looking sample, although it isn’t long before he likely wishes he didn’t. You see, he unwittingly unleashes a deadly bacteria that has designs on whittling down the crew by turning them into the blackened intergalactic equivalent of marauding zombies. Hardly original I know, but then, was there ever a bad time to throw in a handful of embittered dead heads? Lest we not forget that in space no one can hear you shuffle although these are more your 28 Days Later strain of soulless corpses than the kind that you can outrun with a Zimmer frame.
“People don’t really change. Put them under enough pressure and you find out who they are.”
From this point forward it swiftly escalates into the usual game of cat-and-mouse as the fast dwindling crew members attempt to contain the outbreak, with chief systems officer Vincent Campbell (Schreiber), and his go-to-gal Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai) leading from the front. Of course, with confusion reigning supreme and time running out to snuff out this virulent threat before a lander arrives to pick them up, it’s only natural that tempers will fray and allegiances be tested. This is where it helps no end having such a bankable cast at your disposal as they carry the torch ably and ensure that the last hour, which is briskly paced and seldom anything less than dramatic, breezes past without a hitch.
Perhaps the most intriguing character on exhibit here is strictly mission-focused science officer Kim Aldrich (Williams). While initially abrasive and unpopular with her crew mates, Kim comes into her own once the shit starts to hit the fan and her pragmatic approach is more than welcome as the contagion begins to take hold. Even sniveling mission psychologist Robert Irwin (Johnny Harris) isn’t portrayed as simply black and white and this is testament to a tight screenplay from Clive Dawson. Given that the story is reasonably slight, our investment is never in question and the slender 98 minute runtime feels just about spot-on as we rattle towards the only conclusion that feels natural.
The surface of Mars is recreated in the deserts of Jordan and, it has to be said, Robinson works wonders in making it feel authentic. Bleak and uninviting, it provides a suitably hostile playground and almost does enough to deserve a credit all on its own. That said, there is precious little on offer that we haven’t seen done before and The Last Days on Mars banks on both familiarity and rousing turns from its talented cast to leave its mark. Ultimately it is what it is and not a damn thing more which, when you consider how starved we have been of satisfactory space-themed horror in recent times, is more than enough for this particular cadet to slip on the space suit.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Has its moments with regards to splatter although the action, which is plentiful, is too fleeting and briskly edited to truly sink those incisors into. However, the charred mutations themselves are something of a joy to behold and rampage decidedly well within the confined spaces they are unleashed within. There may not be a whole heap of gushing grue on the menu, but suspense is something that The Last Days on Mars can certainly never be accused of skimping on.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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