Sunday, November 3, 2013

More Than Just A Space Horror With An External Threat, The Last Days On Mars Is Clever!

The Good: Wonderful acting, Interesting characters, Interesting conflict, Mood
The Bad: Mars setting looks like a desert, Somewhat predictable horror plot progression
The Basics: While it might be easy to write off The Last Days On Mars as a zombie movie in space, it is actually smarter than one might expect and it deserves to be seen!

With the abysmal failure of John Carter (reviewed here!) at the box office, it is little surprise that moviegoers and production companies would be hesitant to return to Mars. Given the dramatic success of Gravity (reviewed here!)at the box office this year, though, it is surprising that The Last Days On Mars is not being pushed for a wider release. Like Gravity, The Last Days On Mars has a generally practical approach to near-Earth space travel and it is hard not to get the feeling that the international space community is softening up the population for a disaster in space, with the underlying argument that it is worth it for humanity to try at least.

After an initial, practical, set-up, with Vincent and some of the rest of the crew on edge about the six month trip that it will take to get from Mars to Earth, the film turns into something much more like Alien (reviewed here!). The Last Days On Mars starts with tightly realistic characters – the professionals have different specialties and there is a realistic psychological concern about how the explorers are doing in their last hours on Mars. The Last Days On Mars has a stark sense of isolation that makes the viewer feel like the Aurora crew is very much on its own, depending on one another under harsh circumstances.

The second Aurora mission to Mars is in its last twenty hours when a sandstorm hits the equipment that the Earth team is leaving on Mars. Petrovic and Harrington go out using the excuse that they need to fix equipment damaged in the storm before the team leaves Mars, though en route Petrovic reveals that there is a microscopic anomaly was detected. Moments after Kim Aldrich realizes that Marko Petrovic would not have gone outside just to make repairs, Petrovic extracts what appears to be a life form from the ground right before it collapses. With Petrovic killed, Captain Brunel works to maintain order among the crew.

While Aldrich tries to impress upon the others the magnitude of the discovery of a microscopic life form, Brunel reluctantly goes out to recover Petrovic’s body. Vincent descends into the hole in the ground, where he sees webbing that makes him believe there is something alive in the pit. Unable to find the bodies of Marko or Dalby (who is also missing by that point), the team outside is shocked when they find tracks leading away from the pit. Soon, the base is under siege by its dead and transformed crewmembers. The survivors struggle to get off Mars while eluding their transformed comrades.

Right off the bat, The Last Days On Mars disappointed me from its look. The film looks like it was filmed in the desert . . . which it was. The Last Days On Mars does not feel like it is set on an alien world, so the sand looks brown, not red or orange. With the addition of a water spire, the setting feels even more like Earth. This undermines the film some because the viewer has to be told of the threats and reminded of them, like the inherent danger of getting a tear in the suit each explorer wears when outside the base on Mars.

The look of The Last Days On Mars does not hold the film back for very long. Instead of belaboring the production values of the outside the station sequences, the film gets pretty fast back inside where both the characters and the impending horror are explored. Vincent suffers from claustrophobia and as the viewer is taken back to the space ship upon which the crew arrived, they instantly understand Vincent’s ambivalence to the return trip. As well, Vincent has one of the great, realistic moments in the film when Aldrich wants to know about the capabilities of the undead crewmembers and his response is an honestly realistic, “How the fuck should I know?!” The characters do not have the time or resources to truly understand what they are up against, so they are forced to rely upon common sense and that works well for the movie. Mirroring the fantastic plot of the infected astronauts is Vincent’s struggle against his very realistic claustrophobia. It’s reminiscent of Garak’s arc in “By Inferno’s Light” (reviewed here!) and it plays a bit more realistically in The Last Days On Mars. The struggle against his own fears are not simply shrugged off for plot convenience, which is nice.

What initially impressed me about The Last Days On Mars was how well-defined each character was. The team on the Aurora mission has pretty clear jobs: Brunel is the Captain, there is a psychologist, a doctor and a mechanic aboard, the rest of the crew seems like they could realistically be astronauts. Aldrich makes some excellent points about how the crew is suddenly trusting people who have already proven to be untrustworthy and that type of realism is something I’ve not seen in film before.

While Liev Schreiber gets top billing, Olivia Williams’s Aldrich is more immediately engaging. Aldrich is characterized by Vincent as a bitch, but she is smart and capable. Before the mission goes to pot, she is on top of things. Williams plays Aldrich with a clear intelligence and ability that makes the viewer root for her. In fact, more than Ripley in Alien, Aldrich becomes an efficient, intelligent character viewers want to survive. Williams is articulate and carries the fight sequences she is in remarkably well. While other characters in similar films fall apart, Aldrich comes up with a medical cocktail that might thwart her undead compatriots and she immediately sets to testing it. Williams presents Aldrich with a fearless and scientifically-reasonable quality that makes her both a likable pragmatist and a believable professional.

For his part, Liev Schreiber plays the fear for Vincent exceptionally well. More than that, Schreiber was perfectly cast for the character’s sarcasm and realistic sense of futility. When Vincent is attacked by one of the creatures and it just keeps coming, his exasperation is perfectly presented by Schreiber. As the film starts to drag in the last half, Schreiber adequately carries it with his quiet moodiness, making Vincent interesting to watch. The rest of the cast plays their parts well and all of them seem like they could realistically be in the positions they are in.

The Last Days On Mars accomplishes what few science fiction horror movies are able to, even if it does not look like it is set on Mars: it realistically captures the horrors of being alone, without resources, without information, without hope. And it does that very well, making it well worth watching, even when it is derivative.

For other science fiction horror films, please check out my reviews of:
Pitch Black


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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