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Cannes Film Review: ‘The Last Days on Mars’

A murkily derivative sci-fi-horror entry that basically amounts to 'Red Planet of the Dead.'

With:
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Goran Kostic, Johnny Harris, Tom Cullen, Yusra Warsama, Olivia Williams.

Considerable talent and resources have clearly been marshaled in service of “The Last Days on Mars,” which, in achieving a reasonably plausible low-budget vision of the future, announces itself as a first feature of considerable ambition for Irish helmer Ruairi Robinson. Yet while it earns high marks for Jon Henson’s production design, this murkily derivative sci-fi-horror entry sets its sights disappointingly low in terms of story and ideas, leaving the viewer’s sense of awe unstirred as a solid cast, toplined by Liev Schreiber, trudges its way through what basically amounts to “Red Planet of the Dead.”

Four years ago, Duncan Jones’ “Moon” demonstrated what was possible, creatively and commercially, in the realm of minimalist speculative fiction. Apart from serving its purpose as a calling card for Robinson and his crew, “The Last Days on Mars” seems unlikely to occupy a place of similar distinction. At a time when a NASA rover called Curiosity is transmitting all manner of endlessly fascinating data from Mars’ surface, it’s dispiriting how little sense of possibility, wonder or basic novelty has been brought to bear on Clive Dawson’s script (adapted from Sydney J. Bounds’ short story “The Animators”), a few poetic outer-space shots and blinding-white celestial touches notwithstanding.

Six months after they began the first manned mission to Mars, scouring the planet’s dry, dusty surface in search of life, the variously tired, homesick and cranky members of an astronaut team are ready to return home to Earth. Just 19 hours before their scheduled departure from Tantalus Base, one of them (Goran Kostic) recklessly ventures outside their station and uncovers a virulent strain of bacteria, which transforms anyone it infects into an undead psycho killer. (Sounds like a rather impractical evolutionary development, but OK.)

As the rapidly dwindling crew attempts to keep the rabid predators at bay, Robinson tries to play on his characters’ mutual mistrust and a mounting sense of claustrophobia. But the characters are all ciphers in spacesuits, playing out a bare-bones formula: There’s the tough, wisecracking hero (Liev Schreiber), the sweet young medic (Romola Garai), the wise crew leader who succumbs too soon (Elias Koteas), the insufferable hardass you’d want on your side in a crisis (Olivia Williams), et al. All of which would have been more or less acceptable if the film succeeded in packing a visceral punch or generating real suspense.

But any potential atmosphere of dread a la Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (one of many obvious genre influences here) is drained away by an overly jittery visual style in which the camera seems to mimic the zombies’ flailing movements. Shooting in widescreen on 35mm stock, versatile d.p. Robbie Ryan seems to have relied considerably on natural light, which works well enough for the stately long shots of dusty Martian backdrops (the film was lensed primarily in Jordan). But when all hell breaks loose, much of the poorly blocked action unfolds in grubby-looking interiors, captured in wobbly closeups; all too often it’s difficult to tell where the characters are in relation to each other or who’s who underneath those space helmets.

Henson and the rest of the art department deserve high marks for their skillful rendering of a Martian base, even if it exists only to be smeared with blood; visual effects work is subtly topnotch. Picture quality appeared a bit fuzzy at the Cannes screening reviewed, and even allowing for a certain level of verisimilitude in the sound design (in space, no one can hear you articulate), dialogue frequently came across mumbled or garbled. Max Richter’s fine score lends the production a touch of class and grandeur.

Cannes Film Review: 'The Last Days on Mars'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 20, 2013. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: (U.K.-Ireland) A BFI presentation in association with Bord Scannan na hEireann/Irish Film Board, Prescience, Altus Prods. and Focus Features Intl. of a Qwerty production in association with Fantastic Films. (International sales: Focus Features Intl., London.) Produced by Michael Kuhn, Andrea Cornwell. Executive producers, Malcolm Ritchie, James Swarbrick. Co-producers, John McDonnell, Brendan McCarthy.

Crew: Directed by Ruairi Robinson. Screenplay, Clive Dawson, based on the short story "The Animators" by Sydney J. Bounds. Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm), Robbie Ryan; editor, Peter Lambert; music, Max Richter; production designer, Jon Henson; supervising art director, Steven Lawrence; art directors, Chris Wyatt, John King; stunt coordinator, Andy Bennett; special effects makeup designer, Kristyan Mallett; special effects supervisor, Mark Holt; visual effects supervisor, Adam McInnes; visual effects, Screen Scene VFX, Outcast VFX; line producer, Mark Hubbard; casting, Shaheen Baig.

With: Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Goran Kostic, Johnny Harris, Tom Cullen, Yusra Warsama, Olivia Williams.

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