I thought a lot about why a movie like The Last Days on Mars will barely see the inside of theaters, despite a high-end cast and a popular concept. I thought about the future of movies and the way that companies like Magnet are making VOD their first choice for turning a profit. I thought about Hollywood’s ridiculous aversion to the word “Mars” in the title, as if the box office failure of “Mars” films were somehow connected to that fact.
I thought about all these things because they’re pertinent to The Last Days on Mars. But mostly I thought about them because nothing on screen was able to hold my interest for more than a few precious seconds. It’s a stultifying affair – sad since it basically involves zombies from outer space – and its derivative nature manages to botch both the precepts of hard-core science fiction and cheesy space opera alike. It offers a nice clinical atmosphere in the service of comic book pulp, a cold eye delivered in the service of screaming mayhem. In other hands, it might have works. Here, it just falls apart. Whatever this movie wants to be, it needs to embrace it with much more gusto than it does.
The concept isn't bad. On the last day of a manned mission to Mars, a couple of astronauts open up a fissure in the ground. It contains some manner of infection that appears to kill them, but eventually resurrects them as black-skinned cannibals out to spread their love and joy to the remainder of the team (whose ranks include Liev Schreiber, Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas). It's pretty standard zombie movie fodder, with the added twist that the victims literally can't leave their shelter, since there's no proper air to breathe. They just have to sit tight and hold off the growing ranks of their former kin until rescue can arrive.
Beyond that, we're in clear-cut been-there-done-that territory. Director Ruairi Robinson delivers a flatline atmosphere that starts out intriguing but soon veers into the deadly dull, augmented by perfunctory characters and an overall lack of dramatic tension. His cast understands the value of understatement (particularly Schreiber, who eventually emerges as the hero of the hour) and they help cut into the worst of it, but sooner or later, the movie needs to offer us more than it's prepared to give.
Part of the problem comes from its insistence on adhering to the illusion of scientific plausibility. The Jordan location makes a plausible stand-in for Martian deserts, the equipment never strays into the outlandish, and the zombification threat is couched in reasonable-sounding biological terms. And yet, zombie mayhem is clearly the name of the game, complete with grisly deaths and a condition that readily passes from victim to victim. The Last Days on Mars is too timid to develop that potential, insisting on a 2001-style passivity when it really needs to be bouncing off the walls.
Its chosen tone would work much better if it could invest it with a little tension or suspense, but that falls dangerously flat as well. Robinson mistakes the merely awkward for something more profound, and while his minimalist camerawork suggests an admirable discipline, it can't conjure the scares it needs to in order to keep us hooked.
Indeed, it can't even claim to be the best zombies-on-Mars movie out there. John Carpenter's legendary bomb Ghosts of Mars tackled the same idea with much more verve, and while it's not the greatest film in that director's stable, it goes for broke with an enthusiasm that this effort could really use. As it stands, The Last Days on Mars does nothing but justify its VOD status, while making its viewers pine for better movies from which it cribs too often for comfort. Even that isn't new: mediocre sci-fi has used the same tactic for generations. You can add this one to their ignominious heap, forgotten almost as soon as we've had a chance to digest it.