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Movie review: 'The Last Days on Mars' buries its concept in horror loopholes

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The Last Days on Mars

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THE LAST DAYS ON MARS-- 1 STAR

Continuing the 2013 parade of science fiction on a smaller scale is The Last Days on Mars, the debut full-length feature film from Oscar-nominated short director Ruairi Robinson. After taking part in the Directors' Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival, it debuts in limited theatrical release on December 6th after primarily aiming for a Video On-Demand audience to stir up some buzz. Boasting a notable cast of steady performers and character actors, The Last Day of Mars, on premise alone, is aiming for that subtle suspense that made Moon and Sunshine surprise small-scale science fiction hits within the last decade. The result, however, is as laden with horror cliches as Saturn is encircled with rings.

The Last Days on Mars take place during the last 19 hours of the first manned mission to Mars in the not-too-distant future. The international team has spent six months striking out on their scientific quest to find evidence of ancient water or microbial life on our red planet neighbor. Led by the steadfast Captain Charles Brunel (Fallen and The Thin Red Line veteran Elias Koteas), most are dreading the six-month shuttle hike home and all are long sick of each other's company. The biggest workplace prick is scientist Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams of The Sixth Sense and Rushmore), while Vincent Campbell (headliner Liev Schreiber) and Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai of Atonement) anchor the positive and focused end of the crew and psychologist

Things perk up when the competitive scientist Marco Petrovic (Bosnian actor Goran Kostic of In the Land of Blood and Honey) has found rock samples that might indicate active bacteria under the surface, but keeps it his secret. He cajoles leadership to make one more surface excursion to dig deeper, but ends up falling down a sinkhole. Feared dead, Brunel and Campbell lead a rover team on a risky climb to retrieve Marco's body but only find more of the thriving biological agent. That's not a good sign, especially when someone or something in Marco's suit comes knocking back on the base door of the habitat module.

To stay spoiler-free, let's just call what shows up "trouble." That "trouble" is an eye-roll of a twist that turns The Last Days on Mars into a survival/horror thriller with a little too much farce and cliche. The buffet line of "who's next to go" starts to emerge, just as formulaic as you can expect. Had that development been something a little more creative, all of the suspense and cinematic execution that follows might have been worth all of the effort put into it. Filmed in Jordan, the movie takes its small budget and looks great on-screen. Had that change in tone caused by "trouble" matched the intriguing, but slow stage-setting beginning that gets thrown out the space station window, we might have had a decent movie.

Suspension of disbelief is a requirement for any science fiction film, but this one loses its intelligence and jumps too far down the sinkhole it started with. If you're going to go the horror thriller route, have some thrills. Get claustrophobic with the setting and raise the stakes higher than what is attempted here. The talented cast tried, but weren't given much to work with. Liev Schreiber does his best as a supporting ensemble crew member who emerges as the man-of-action and Romola Garai gives you another person to root for, but the structure around them is far too predictable to be reasonably invested in. It's a shame, because The Last Days on Mars could have been a nice little thriller.

Magnet Releasing and Magnolia Pictures have had a busy year backing independent film productions for both theatrical and VOD releases. The Last Days on Mars joins Drinking Buddies, How I Live Now, the hit documentary Blackfish, Europa Report, Best Man Down, Prince Avalanche, and The Hunt. I applaud their efforts to expand this class of cinema to wider audiences. These films aren't blockbusters, but are all far better than the usual SyFy-level, straight-to-DVD crap that these films might have been sentenced to join without backing and support. Not all of them turn out to be diamond-in-the-rough winners, but they each deserved their chance to entertain and impress. That said, I'm starting to see why some aren't getting splashier releases. They are this low for a reason.

LESSON #1: WHEN YOU SEE OR WITNESS SOMETHING AMAZING OR UNBELIEVABLE AS PART OF A GROUP, PLEASE SAY SOMETHING MORE THAN A EXCLAMATORY SENTENCE OF WONDER OR TROUBLE-- You are all trained scientists for goodness sake. Explain. Dictate. Describe. Share in the mission. Report your findings and conduct yourself like a professional. Don't just gawk and droll when a heads up word of caution or even an "it's ok, guys" could save us some manufactured, but stupid guessing. This happens repeatedly in this movie, in true cliche fashion.

LESSON #2: IF IT LOOKS LIKE "TROUBLE," SOUNDS LIKE "TROUBLE," AND ACTS LIKE "TROUBLE," IT PROBABLY IS THE "TROUBLE" YOU ARE THINKING OF-- Once again, I don't want to spoil what "trouble" is, but once you see it you'll know. Apparently, these Mars astronauts don't get out much to see movies and TV shows that might help them get what their "trouble" is and how to deal with it.

LESSON #3: THE DIFFICULTIES IN OPERATING IN A HARSH ENVIRONMENT SO FAR FROM HELP OR HOME-- The one sort of legitimate lesson I can put on this movie is the usual hurdles of a setting such as Mars. You are a six-month rocket ride from home. The backup team is orbiting around you with only one shot at coming to the rescue. Communication with mission control takes minutes to travel to Earth and back. You're on your own for the most part and must use your wits, training, and resourceful calculations to ensure your survival.

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