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TLDOM-cover

If the human animal has one fault (and it has at least one, trust me), it would be that we can never seem to leave well-enough alone. Like the greedy dog with a bone in Aesop’s Fables, we’re constantly reaching out for just one more of anything, a little bit more of everything. Gamblers seldom walk away with they’re on top…game show contestants never take the guaranteed winnings…pressing our luck, it would seem, is just as much a human trait as breathing air. This isn’t always a bad thing, of course: without straining against the bonds of our world-view, we would never grow as a species. Sometimes, however, we have a tendency to push a little too far…peek under one dark rock too many, as it were. As the new sci-fi/horror film The Last Days on Mars demonstrates, it can sometimes be in our best interests to simply let our minds wander, denying ourselves the assurance that we know what lurks under every stone and in every nook and cranny. Sometimes, we really would rather not know.

Our film begins on the titular red planet, during the final 19 hours of a six-month mission. The assorted cosmonauts are our usual varied group of folks tossed into your average stressful situation: Vincent Campbell (Liev Shreiber) serves as our defacto protagonist, while Captain Brunel (Elias Koteas) fills the role of “gruff but fair” crew leader. Rounding out the merry bunch are Kim (Olivia Williams), Marko (Goran Kostic), Harrington (Tom Cullen), Dalby (Yusra Warsama), Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai) and Irwin (Johnny Harris). As in all sci-fi/horror films, there are some inherent tensions among the crew members, most notably between Vincent and Kim. This will, of course, allow for ample dramatic moments once the shit hits the fan. And the shit will, indeed, hit the fan.

Said fan becomes adorned when Marko heads out to, ostensibly, repair a nearby sensor. In reality, he’s decided to go check out a crater site that just may contain the first, honest-to-God, evidence of bacterial life in space. Everyone else is a little concerned by Marko’s rash decision and they should be: haven’t any of these yahoos ever seen Alien? In short order, a sudden earthquake has helped Marko shuffle off his mortal coil, leaving one dead crew member at the bottom of a newly opened hole in the ground. Captain Brunel orders that Marko’s body be recovered, despite the inherent danger of sending more crew members into imminent peril. During the recovery mission, Vincent descends into the hole and gets a good look at the new life-form, which appears to be some sort of intelligent moss. He has a panic attack, which includes flash-backs to some sort of prior trauma, and beats feet back for home base. On the way, he notices a set of footprints leading from the hole to home base…and Marko’s body is nowhere to be found.

As can be expected (unless one has never seen another sci-fi/horror film, of course), something evil has come back from the mysterious hole and is proceeding to bulldoze through the crew members, one by one. Ultimately, the film turns into a sort of live-action version of Dead Space, as Vincent and the dwindling survivors must fight back against some very violent local flora (or would it be fauna?), all with the added threat of Earth’s impending doom hovering over everything. Will Vincent save the day? Will anyone be left alive? Will we figure out just what, exactly, was in the hole?

In many ways, The Last Days on Mars is a tale of two films: one film (the much more interesting one) is another of the recent spate of “intelligent sci-fi/space exploration” films, which includes movies like Red Planet (2000), Moon (2009), Apollo 18 (2011), and Europa Report (2013). The other film is yet another zombie movie, albeit one in which they rush around and use weapons, ala Umberto Lenzi’s trashy Nightmare City (1980). Needless to say, after almost 30 years of watching horror films, I’m a little burnt out on zombie pics, particularly ones which don’t bring much new to the table. In a nutshell, this split focus becomes my biggest problem with The Last Days on Mars: the slow-paced, creepy sci-fi story is so much more interesting than the fast-paced, zombie-action film that we end up with. This is a classic example of a film having a great concept but stumbling in so many other ways.

While the film has plenty of genuinely creepy moments (the opening sequence is flawless and Vincent’s descent into the mysterious hole is thoroughly nail-biting), the tonal shift to an action film wrecks the mood. To compound the issue, the action scenes aren’t even particularly well-staged, being far too kinetic and with absolutely no sense of spectator POV or camera placement: any action sequence devolves into a mindless blur of noise and motion, communicating nothing so much as perpetual motion. Contrasting The Last Days on Mars’ action sequences with David Twohy’s far superior Pitch Black (2000), it becomes painfully obvious that the action really holds the former film back. Way back.

In a way, this is too bad because there’s a truly intriguing skeleton buried under the misshapen muscles and nerves of this fleshy beast. The overall story, about the mysterious moss, is really strong and reminded me of something out of Bradbury: the film is actually based on a short story by prolific sci-fi/horror writer Sydney J. Bounds and the source-material is great. Schreiber is a commanding presence throughout, always portraying Vincent is as real a way as possible. Over time, Schreiber has turned into quite an exceptional actor, although I do find myself wishing he would test-drive more genre fare like this. He receives able support from a decent supporting cast, although no one else really stands out (although Johnny Harris certainly tries, as the rather villainous Irwin). Likewise, the film’s look and sound design is capable but nothing special, with the exception of some nicely done shots of Mars.

Ultimately, I found myself with one nearly heretical thought after the movie was over: this would have been a much better film if Danny Boyle had made it. I normally don’t traffic in or endorse remakes but I just couldn’t shake that thought from my head. Even though I think Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) was a fabulous disaster, he seems to be much more capable of handling this type of sci-fi/horror mash-up than director Ruairi Robinson is and I can’t help but wonder what a surer hand might have made of this.

In the end, The Last Days on Mars is a thoroughly competent but flawed film. The tone was often inconsistent and weird, while the action sequences were way too spastic and clumsy. The acting was pretty good, however, and the overall story is very strong, even if it gets abandoned a bit by the film’s final third. Fans of sci-fi/horror films, particularly more recent ones, will definitely want to check this out. Don’t go in expecting another Alien (or even Red Planet, for that matter) and you should find this to be enjoyable but a little forgettable. That being said, I’m already ready for Hollywood’s next trip to the stars.

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