Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2013

The Last Days on Mars

Mars' walking dead

'The Last Days on Mars' is a low-budget version of an empty big-budget spectacle

The Last Days on Mars
Magnet Releasing
Director: Ruairí Robinson
Screenplay: Clive Dawson, based on the short story The Animators, by Sydney J. Bounds
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Johnny Harris, Tom Cullen and Yusra Warsama
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes
December 6, 2013
(out of four)

Lesson No. 1 when faced with an emergency situation in the midst of a dangerous mission on Mars: Do not, under any circumstances, allow the alien zombie to play with scissors.

I know, I know, you think you've got the thing contained, and it can't possibly harm you. You're fighting the thing, and you're totally winning. And anyway, you're about to jump into the other room and lock the door behind you. So you don't think there's any reason to worry about those scissors the zombie is clutching so conspicuously. I mean, really, do zombies even know how to use scissors?

Well I've got news for you: 1) Duh, of course zombies know how to use scissors. Everyone knows that. And 2) If a zombie - especially one from a strange planet - has any sharp object in its grasp, you're almost definitely getting stabbed with it. Unless you're smart and you get the thing out of its hands immediately.

If you are a member of the Tantalus Base research team in The Last Days on Mars (actually the last day, because the movie takes place over a 19-hour period), you will have ignored this very good advice. You may be a genius at molecular biology, but man, when it comes to savage creatures trying to kill you, it's like you've lost your damn mind. At one point in the film, with two crew members trying to escape such an attack, director Ruairí Robinson's camera focuses squarely on the zombie's body, lying on the ground, holding that shiny pair of scissors that the scientists in the room inexplicably fail to notice or do anything about. They don't yank the scissors away; they don't step on the zombie's hand and take the scissors by force; they just punch the zombie and hope it'll stay down.

Needless to say, the alien zombie gets up and stabs someone with the scissors. And given that Mars' atmosphere is causing people to turn into zombies, that person is basically screwed now that their blood has been exposed to the elements.

A few minutes later, in a separate location, another character gets nearly stabbed (his space helmet saves him) by - get this - another pair of scissors. I don't even know where that pair of scissors came from. Is it the same pair? Frankly, it's hard to remember. I think the lesson here is that spaceships are basically full of scissors. Like, maybe every crew member on a space mission gets a free pair of scissors. And maybe a Bible. And probably some toothpaste.

And a plastic comb.

It's true, I admit, we can't expect scientific researchers to be prepared to handle a couple of unexpected zombie visitors. But the poor staging of the suspense and action sequences makes it difficult for us to meet the filmmakers halfway. Robinson could at least make it seem like the crew members, when engaged in combat with an undead creature, still have some idea of how to use and coordinate their bodies. Instead, they clumsily flail around in scenes made all the more aggravating by their lazy reliance on shaky handheld camerawork.

Compounding that problem is the fact that some of the dialogue - often spoken in quick bursts during moments of fast-paced tension - is muffled and borderline indecipherable. I'm not sure if it's bad direction, bad sound mixing, or both, but it's a persistent issue.

The rest of the movie isn't much better. I appreciate its attempt to keep its details shrouded in ambiguity (in a fashion not entirely unlike Soderbergh's Solaris or Danny Boyle's Sunshine), but Robinson and screenwriter Clive Dawson never really find anything to grab ahold of. There's a palpable kinship between Vincent (Liev Schreiber) and Rebecca (Romola Garai), a pair of research partners who share an easy platonic chemistry; but the characters as a whole aren't fleshed out. Elias Koteas plays the incredibly weak Captain Brunel, whose authority is almost always ignored or circumvented by his crew. The most disappointing is the lack of material for Olivia Williams, as a dedicated but abrasive scientist who the rest of the crew hates but who seems to be the smartest member of the bunch. It's a shame to see such a good actress trapped in such an undercooked role.

Small-scale sci-fi fare like this can yield some of the most interesting results in the entire genre, often because it has to rely more on ideas than on special effects and star power. But The Last Days on Mars, with its modest budget and impressive stable of strong character actors, still ends up behaving like a big, dumb action movie.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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