Adapted from a Sydney J. Bounds short story, Ruairí Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars opens with 19 hours remaining in an exploratory mission on Mars, which the script implies to have been a long and excruciating haul, calcified in the creases around the eyes of astronaut Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber). At the worst possible time, one of Campbell’s crewmates discovers bacterial traces of life, and after getting a silent go-ahead to check it out by team leader Brunel (Elias Koteas), the astronaut vanishes from his research site in a freak volcanic eruption. Crunched for time, the crew drives out to assess the situation, but exposure—and thus, infection—immediately turns team members into psychotic, drill-wielding Martian zombies.
What follows is a milquetoast survival-of-the-fittest saga, perhaps best appreciated as a vehicle for Schreiber. If Gravity clung to Sandra Bullock’s glass-ensconced face as an emotional anchor while she and viewers discovered new CGI terrains together, The Last Days on Mars instead returns to Schreiber’s squint—an inscrutable, static image—as if it were home base. Campbell is a tough, resourceful, and bitterly unhappy action figure, the crew’s ablest in terms of character and strength, endowed with a Nolan-sized flashback trauma that’s withheld by Clive Dawson’s screenplay until it bursts. And maybe as in the case of Bullock’s Ryan Stone, you’ll wish you never found out what his hangup is once it’s revealed.
The film assuredly spelunks the ins and outs of the crew’s station as Campbell and his colleague, Lane (Romola Garai), attempt to seal themselves off from their shrieking attackers, oxygen and supplies growing ever more depleted. Zeroing in on tight corners and doomed stretches of desert near-blackness, Robinson and cinematographer Robbie Ryan establish a claustrophobia that’s admirably tactile. Like Moon, the film’s visual construction is—in contrast to any mainstream sci-fi tent pole—spare, drawing power from its locations and quietly matted miniatures, though ultimately it succumbs to powering a series of cheap thrills.
The invocations of earlier, better movies was perhaps inevitable, as Dawson’s script adamantly refuses to punch above its weight. The cast opens up some intriguing possibilities: Brunel’s exposure to the virus sees Koteas making a grand pass at the classic deathbed soliloquy; the character is tainted by his crewmates’ distrust as the bacteria spreads throughout his system, and the scene tensely evokes the throbbing, paranoid mind games of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Kim (Olivia Williams) is the only crew member hard-hearted enough to tie him down to the operating table, and her perspicacity is confirmed when he becomes yet another shrieking, bloodthirsty phantom in mere minutes. So much for ambiguity. Despite her intuition being correct, it’s understood that Kim will suffer the same fate, and that’s a shame. Even if Dawson and Robinson see the character as fodder, Williams’s brief performance handily outstrips the film’s tired exercise in spook-house expendability.