2016.80: The Last Days on Mars (Network Airing, Film Four HD)
The Last Days on Mars isn’t a terrible film by any means, its just badly flawed and hampered by a thin script, poor editing decisions and the fact that its missing what should be its first reel. That aside, considering its low budget it looks pretty terrific and remains fairly impressive visually even compared to Ridley Scott’s rather more handsomely-budgeted The Martian of a few years later.
In the failing hours of a six-month mission on Mars, the second manned expedition to the Red Planet starts wrapping things up in anticipation of the long journey back home. The mission has been successful but is still deemed a failure by one of the frustrated science leads as no evidence has been found of life once existing on the planet. However, one scientist notices some tantalising clues in some of the extracted soil samples and in an effort to presumably claim the discovery for himself (why?) sneakily goes out on one last excursion pretending its forced on him due to faulty sensors at the dig site. His attempt for scientific immortality goes terribly wrong however when in the midst of his euphoric confirmation of life on Mars a tremor opens up the ground beneath him and he plunges to his death, whilst unleashing alien microbes upon the rest of his team that turn his corpse and that of his victims into, er, Space Zombies.
Okay. It sounds terrible.
The thing is, so much wrong about this film was easily fixable. Take that missing first reel. Part of the genius of Scott’s earlier Alien is its slow build-up, the first forty-five minutes spent introducing the characters, the dynamics of their individual relationships, the space of the Nostromo and its hardware. By the time they land on the alien planet and the shit hits the fan, we know who they are and where they are and the mechanics of it all. We don’t have that in The Last Days on Mars. We are thrown into the events not knowing who is who or the mechanics of their mission (it later transpires they are waiting to be ‘picked up’ rather than launching on a rocket themselves). We don’t understand why Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) is acting a bit oddly and isn’t looking forward to the trip home, or why Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) is such a bitch, or why Capt. Charles Brunel is so weak-willed (Elias Koteas getting so typecast now as such hopeless leaders we just know everything he decides is just plain wrong).
Just twenty minutes spent with them in the base beforehand, explaining their relationship dynamics and the mechanics of their mission and timeline for getting home would have benefited the film immeasurably. There is a reason why the first important scene in Alien (and likewise in Sunshine) is a communal meal in which the banter of the crew sets everything up.
Instead we are launched into the crisis almost immediately, something intended to be gripping but ultimately just proves confusing. We don’t know anyone or what they do. We don’t understand why there are two habitats or that they are linked by subterranean tunnels. We don’t understand where the base is compared to the dig site or where the pick-up location is or when it is due. Thanks to clumsy editing we don’t even know why Campbell keeps having odd visions of a spaceship (they are actually flashbacks to a claustrophobic attack on the journey to Mars, but I didn’t work that out until much later- for most of the film I thought they were visions of the future or messages from the aliens or something).
It doesn’t help that these characters are such lousy astronauts who can’t obey commands or keep their cool and ‘work the problem’ in NASA tradition. If any one of these guys suffered the fate of astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian they would be dead within a week. They are stupid and selfish and emotionally strung-out; maybe they were intended to be like the working-jock space truckers of Alien but they should instead be trained astronauts on a billion-dollar expedition.
So the film has its moments, but most of the time its painfully frustrating. It could have been good. After all, the cast is pretty high-profile for the most part and they could do much more with better material. In the end its all just a pretty vacant, dumb b-movie about alien bugs on Mars turning people we don’t care about into Space Zombies. It might have been more fun had it looked a bit more low-rent akin to the old Hammer movies; as it is, its a competently-shot, overly-serious film hampered by a weak screenplay needing much more work in an impressive-looking but frankly vacuous sci-fi/horror movie. In a way, its a bit like a modern-day Space:1999. Bit of a shame really. We need more competently-made, low-budget sci-fi films like this, but ones with great ideas, not the stupid stuff usually reserved for the big blockbusters that use spectacle and bombast to get away with it.
Space Zombie Martians. Ugh.
But the Max Richter soundtrack is pretty good- deserves a better movie infact.