Mars is a frequent sci-fi setting, but the appeal of an object of wonder and mystery just barely within our reach rarely translates to the screen. From "Ghosts of Mars" to "Mission on Mars," red-planet movies tend come across as icily as its desolate terrain. To its credit, Ruairi Robinson's "The Last Days of Mars" makes a concerted effort to elevate its setting to poetic heights, amplifying the solitude experienced by a handful of astronauts trapped on the surface with evocative imagery and keen minimalist style that owes a debt to Duncan Jones' "Moon." Unfortunately, these ingredients can't salvage an uninspired plot that lacks the sense of wonder surrounding it.
Irish director Robinson, making his feature-length debut (he was nominated for a Best Short Film Oscar for "Fifty Percent Grey" in 2002), captures a beautifully realized world that unfolds during the final 20 hours of several astronauts' six-month mission. Early scenes establish a promising environment of despair, with several members at each others' throats from boredom. Only the levelheaded Vincent (Liev Schreiber) and his colleague Rebecca (Romola Garai) remain fairly sane, while the grouchy Kim (Olivia Williams) snaps at everyone around her and the team's stone-faced captain (Elias Koteas) barks orders. The actors bring enough snarky appeal to their roles that the first act glides along; it's almost enough to wish Robinson had crafted a chamber drama about cabin fever. No such luck.
Working from Clive Dawson's screenplay, Robinson does a decent job establishing the shared resentment of the crew. Before you can say "Indie 'Prometheus,'" however, one of the researchers discovers a mysterious bacteria that gradually transforms those infected by the disease into murderous walking corpses. After a lovely buildup, "The Last Days of Mars" abruptly shifts into uninspired zombie territory. That might be sufficient if the script didn't loose its edge as well. In an all-too-brief moment of self-criticism, one astronaut asserts, "Put people under enough pressure and you'll find out who they really are," to which a peer sarcastically replies, "That was deep."
In fact, it's prophetic. Under the literal pressure of the Martian atmosphere and the virus eating away at them from the inside, the infected astronauts take the form of ghoulish, skull-faced psychopaths hurtling every lethal object in their reach at the remaining survivors. While the bodies pile up, Vincent, Rebecca and the others spend much of the movie holed up in a laboratory, with the setting calling to mind George Romero's "Day of the Dead." But it trades that movie's humor and scare tactics for the hackneyed routine of stupid people running around frantically against a thundering score.
It's a shame, because the movie contains enough visual inspiration to make the case that Robinson (once slated to direct a live action "Akira") could work wonders in the science fiction realm. There's plenty to admire here -- from the ominous opening shots, in which a massive sandstorm engulfs the base, to the concluding image of a blinking spaceship against the black void of space. Ultimately, "The Last Days of Mars" provides a window into a great Mars movie that might have been and a reminder that we're still waiting for one.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus International already has distribution plans for the film overseas. The genre hook and some noteworthy cast may carry it along to various genre festivals before it finds some decent VOD business, but theatrical prospects are miniscule.