Martian Cold War.
Life not as we know it takes down a Martian expedition. It’s a cold, people. Bacteria. Great, and I forgot to pack the Vicks Vaporub…
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS boldly breaks conventions even whilst being one big convention. Within the framework of this clichéd thriller, writers Sydney J. Bounds and Clive Dawson, and director Ruairi Robinson (his first directorial feature) insert subtle left turns that have obviously escaped the casual viewer, evidenced by this movie’s lackluster critical reception.
It’s the last day for a scientific expedition on Mars – within 19 hours a return ship is scheduled to land; meanwhile, a biological discovery has overrun the command center. Mission Captain is Elias Koteas (THE FOURTH KIND), with Liev Schreiber (SALT) as Vincent the lead astroboy, Romola Garai as his curvy adjutant Lane and Olivia Williams (THE GHOST WRITER) as veteran hard-nosed geologist Kim.
Movie bucks convention immediately as Vincent and Lane await Kim in a manned rover. Vincent has some taut words with Kim outside, who is resistant to stopping her experiment and getting back in the rover on orders from base camp. We feel a kind of sexual tension between grizzled Vince and the old gal in the field, like they’ve had a history, or are a current item on a rough patch. It’s how Hollywood writes characters: (reference THE ABYSS) two of the veteran characters have a rocky history but this mission will bring them together again– [needle scratch] But no. We find out Kim is not Vince’s girl, but just a pissy bitch. Period. Rather, there is a tentative romantic link between Vince and his co-driver Lane, but that doesn’t become apparent until later, and only implicitly, in the professional way they skirt around saying tender things to each other when they feel the end is near. It might be a small thing, but I was impressed the movie did not fall into the convention of making the lead female (Olivia Williams) the “property” of the lead male (Schrieber).
After that first example, I noticed many more bucking of conventions: no clunky exposition dialogue on who is who (the medic, the geologist, the pilot, etc. are all defined by their actions and posturing); the “zombie”-like condition of the infected scientists is explained biologically; trained human reactions to stressful conditions, rather than overacting Because It’s Space; astronaut helmets worn outdoors, rather than specious rationalizations on Why We Can Now Breathe On Mars; the stars die in arbitrary order; adherence to orbital mechanics; no guarantee of a happy ending, and so on…
The expedition’s biologist is the first to be infected, turning him into a – for want of a better word – zombie. The infected people resemble the modern cinematic version of the “zombie” – but they are not. The Martian bacteria kills its hosts and animates their dead bodies (giving them the illusion of life) in order to pursue and infect other bodies, like any virus. It’s no different than our own DNA, creating in us the desire to spread it for the species’ sake. (It’s not “evil,” it’s just one mode of genetic perpetuation.) So the movie bases its “monsters” and their motivations on a biological plot device. Yet if perceived incorrectly, this aspect of LAST DAYS oozes low-budget SciFi Channel. (And that “zombie” that uses a power drill on another guy’s stomach is not really “trying to infect him” but openly trying to kill him! Why don’t zombie infections cause power math or Gumby Flower Arranging?)
LAST DAYS takes itself very seriously, with excellent production values, authentic set design and seamless CGI. Ratcheting tension, taut soundtrack and energetic performances, with Liev providing a solid hunk of man to depend on through adversity.
LAST DAYS evokes far superior movies (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ALIEN, MOON, JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING, ALIENS – especially when Vince crawls through that duct like Bishop), which may be its downfall – you just can’t make a regular good old-fashioned space thriller these days without evoking what came before. And its title waxes elegiac – like the tale should carry more weight. And maybe it could have: there is short shrift given to the fact that the infecting bacteria – is LIFE. Once it is identified, survival priority is that our heroes eradicate it from their crewmates and vicinity; but the fact that it is THE discovery that lends historical import to the mission itself is lost in the Running and Screaming.
Another reason LAST DAYS scores low with viewers is that we’ve been conditioned to accept “up” endings after suffering through tragedy vicariously with the stars, and LAST DAYS’ ambiguous “down” ending negates its good points in one fell swoop. We are that provincial. Waaah! It’s not what we’re used to. We’re babies with closed minds.
If it’s not Life As We Know It, we don’t wanna know it…