Night of the Zombie Martians: Notable cast and production can't bleed new life into "Mars"

The Last Days on Mars (2013)
98 min., rated R.

"Alien." "Event Horizon." "Mission to Mars." "Red Planet." "Sunshine." "Moon." These are just some of the movies "The Last Days on Mars" borrows spare parts from, and it probably doesn't help that this sci-fi horror item arrives the same year as the low-budget "Europa Report" and a little movie called "Gravity" (maybe you've heard of it?). Despite not offering anything revolutionary to trounce its cinematic elders that landed here first, if it had to rip off a better movie, at least it's "Alien." In the film's favor, director Ruairi Robinson and screenwriter Clive Dawson, both new to making features and working from a short story called "The Animators," are blessed to have such a classy cast of known professionals and impressive production values. "The Last Days on Mars" would seem to have everything going for it, but there's just not enough here to distinguish itself from what's already been done before and done better. 

With 19 hours left of their six-months-long Aurora Mars Mission 2, a crew of eight is disappointed to not discover any life on the Red Planet, especially stubborn, chilly biologist Kim (Olivia Williams) who doesn't want to return to Earth empty-handed, but anxious astronaut Vincent (Liev Schreiber) is fine with getting back home. That is until Russian scientist Marko (Goran Kostic) breaks protocolif he didn't, there'd be no movie—and finds a bacteria before being swallowed up by the ground. Eventually, the bacteria infects the astronauts' bloodstream, one by one, and you know the drill. All of them making it out alive looks pretty dire.

It will surprise the viewer to know that "The Last Days on Mars" was only made for less than $10 million because it is so gorgeous and convincing to look at, especially on the vast and desolate Mars. No styrofoam sets here. That the filmmakers show a command of their scope and mise en scène is significant, and the ironic use of 1938's Jack Hylton ditty "Blue Skies Are Around the Corner" during an opening dust storm is a nice touch. The first quarter is pretty technobabbly before some unlucky comrade says those five unlucky words"You have to see this!"and then the commercially-minded thrills come out and a body count begins steering the narrative, as the power drill-wielding astro-zombies begin taking out the remaining crew. It's not even frustrating that the film shifts more into a monster movie, but it's frustrating that it's not a very good monster movie. There's the requisite B-grade dialogue, like "Something awful happened here" and "We gotta get outta here," but the overqualified cast gives it conviction. 

Liev Schreiber has the most to work with, which is still very little, but he conveys a palpable sense of anxiety after a past traumatic freak-out on his way from the Aurora spacecraft. Olivia Williams, with her short cut and toughness, could be considered this film's Ellen Ripley. (She even puts up a fight after running for her life as the lights go out and a flashing alarm sounds.) Romola Garai is the calming force as Lane, too, but the reliably strange Elias Koteas, as crew leader Brunel, is just strangely underutilized, and the rest of the actors (Johnny Harris, Tom Cullen, and Yusra Warsama) are stranded, either to be killed or infected and then killed.

When the action falls into a genre pattern of running and fending off the undead, director Robinson gets some tension out of it. There's also a deceitful turn late in the game, where a crew member would rather save his own skin, but the behavior comes out of nowhere without being terribly motivated. A derivative lost-in-space picture is only as strong as its characters and antagonists, which barely hold much depth to escape cipher status and are only occasionally fearsome, respectively. The drama is pretty anemic, and as science fiction, the film never goes deeper than discovery leading to peril to have any rewarding takeaway. As horror, it merely gets the job done. Otherwise, been there, done that during "The Last Days on Mars."