While the fantastical has become the dominant form of genre entertainment for children, for adults science fiction and horror have remained the prevailing forms. Despite the superficial similarities there are key differences which define their individuality, and it is very rare for a successful hybrid to be produced, with Alien, The Thing, Event Horizon and Pitch Black among the few survivors on a battlefield littered with the remains of Screamers, Hellraiser: Bloodline, Ghosts of Mars, Jason X and Doom, to name but a few.
The feature debut of director Ruairí Robinson from a script by Clive Dawson, previously credited as writer of 29 episodes of The Bill, The Last Days on Mars is based on The Animators, a 1975 short story by British science fiction writer Sidney J Bounds, and feels as dated as that vintage, as dry and unwelcoming as the cold dust of the red planet.
The crew of the Aurora Mission are approaching the end of six long and fruitless months in a habitat on the Martian surface, and with only 19 hours until they depart for Earth, there is frustration and disappointment. Lead researcher Aldrich is bitter, feeling they have achieved nothing, just laying the ground work for subsequent missions, and while her colleagues occupy themselves with final tasks, Harrington and Petrovic are despatched to repair a malfunction on the skylink to restore communication.
Ordered to return before dark, the repair mission is in fact a ruse, Petrovic wishing to return to a site where has previously detected “microscopic anomalies” which might indicate a biological presence, evidence he has not revealed to the rest of the crew despite that being a primary mission objective.
While obtaining samples, a fissure opens up, and Petrovic is apparently lost beneath the Martian surface as Harrington calls for help. Captain Brunel arrives to assess the situation, and he and Harrington return to base to retrieve specialist equipment, leaving their colleague Dalby to await their return, but she chooses to enter the pit alone.
Properly prepared, Brunel and Campbell descend to investigate, finding evidence of the life form Petrovic was seeking, but no sign of the missing crew. Returning to base, arrangements are underway for departure when the injured Petrovic is seen approaching the base on foot and Harrington goes to the airlock to assist him, unaware that he has been infected by the very organism he was seeking.
The essence of science fiction is exploration and wonder, of asking questions and seeking answers, of unravelling mysteries, yet for a film made with the assistance of the Irish Film Fund and the BFI and with such highly regarded and talented actors as Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas in key roles, the only mystery is how these parties became involved with such tiresome nonsense.
While the reliable Williams and Koteas are as good as would be expected as Kim Aldrich and Charles Brunel, as is Liev Schreiber as Vincent Campbell, all the characters are underwritten and generic, tedious hints of Campbell’s past trauma recurring through the film but never elucidated or connecting with the immediate plot, and death scenes so obvious the audience can guess the dialogue before it is delivered.
All the cast are better than what they are given, but particularly poorly served by the script are Yusra Warsama as Lauren Dalby, irrationally blaming Harrington for a geological incident before disobeying orders to attempt a rescue mission without equipment or backup, and Tom Cullen as Richard Harrington himself, panicking in emergency situations in the manner of a first day cadet rather than handling the situation in a professional manner.
In the same way that Prometheus failed by having characters persistently behave stupidly rather than smartly, here the scientists operate in a state of denial despite immediate evidence, the designers of the base no better, having installed a big red button to be pressed in emergencies which substitutes the main lights for flashing red lights and triggers a disorienting klaxon to ensure that the crew does indeed panic.
While Max Richter’s score reflects Moon and the camera prowling through the encompassing and detailed set indicates the hope of emulating Alien, like the planet Mars it is light on atmosphere, the high production values and convincing environments those of a much more intelligent film. The thematic antithesis of The War of the Worlds, with human invaders on Mars being decimated by local bacteria, any lofty ambitions for The Last Days on Mars are thwarted by the attack of the rampaging space zombies, the responsibility lying solely with Dawson’s pedestrian script.