Science-fiction and horror go together so well, don’t you think? There’s a rich heritage, from the misty past of The War of the Worlds, via Alien, up to the present day.
There is, I suspect, an intersection at the point of the unknown. We fear the unknown, and yet the great unknowns offered by SF fascinate us as much as they intimidate us. That fear, for me at least, is the one of the things that really interest me, and so I am drawn to films like The Last Days of Mars.
The Last Days of Mars, as the title suggests, follows the last days before a research mission leaves Mars. Their search for signs of life has been a bust, but one of the team has been keeping signs of life he has discovered a secret. Unfortunately, it’s the evil kind of alien life, and it starts turning the team into space zombies, leaving the motley crew to try and fend them off long enough to get back to Earth.
Now, I really liked the tone of the film. It had a slow, creeping pace which slips along with a quiet malevolence. It’s the sort of thing I really appreciate, reminding me strongly of Alien. And it’s in that sense that Last Days is at its best; the sense of being trapped, trying to keep just out of arm’s reach of something which hates you.
And if that creeping lightness of touch was carried out through all aspects of the film, then it would be a triumph. Sadly, that is not the case.
As the film progresses, it starts to wend a predictably familiar path. The danger ramps up and up, but without any real emotional value because there is simply no investment in the characters. Their motives are thin and stereotypical — the humanitarian, the survivalist, the obsessed scientist — and despite the fact that there is some ordinarily good talent here — Liev Schreiber Elias Kotas and Olivia Williams are hardly small-time — it just doesn’t seem to shine through.
Space zombies are one thing, but they alone won’t make an engaging film, much less the sort of philosophically frightening fare that Last Days seems sometimes to be aiming for.
Schreiber would, I suspect, have done well at the fore of an action/sci-fi B-movie. But again, that isn’t what this is. It’s softly-softly style — which, I reiterate, I did like — doesn’t fit with the chisel-jawed hero battling the undead. Instead we are left with something which slips between the cracks of the two, with potential to speak of but far too little of it realised.
Like I said at the start, horror and sci-fi naturally seem to go well together, and both can go well with surface-level action or high concept. The problem here is not one of genre, but one of execution. It feels like there was a lack of clear vision, coupled with a lack — or maybe a constraint — of ambition. This could have been a good film, and at the times that started to burst free — mostly at the beginning — I felt strongly that this could have really worked.
But “could have” isn’t enough, and I’m afraid The Last Days of Mars just didn’t hit the mark.