Olivia Williams is magnificently pissed-off in "The Last Days on Mars." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
'The Last Days on Mars' Director: Ruairi Robinson Cast: Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
2013 has been illuminating for outside-the-box sci-fi. “Gravity” and the tinier “Europa Report” — filmed entirely in a warehouse in Brooklyn — stretched the boundaries of the genre, giving us the illusion of the new while playing with the familiar. And yet, in the face of so much quality, a purely schlocky number like “The Last Days of Mars” should be perversely welcome. There is nothing remotely new about this low budget English-Irish production. It’s a warmed-over retro B-movie that mashes the space and horror film once again into one. It boasts an impressive name cast, some giving it their all, some phoning it in.
And yet even with its modest ambitions it’s still not enough. Liev Schreiber — he’s one phoning it in — plays one of the crew members on a six month mission to Mars. Much like the cop who eats it on the day before retirement, it’s in the last several hours of their stint that the crew is besieged by a deadly virus that kills its prey, then turns them into zombies. Worse, it’s not even the good George A. Romero kind; it’s the crappy, fast, aggressive kind.
Every last bit of “The Last Days on Mars” is reheated. Even the big band song that eccentrically plays over the opening credits is a callback to the country music interlude from James Cameron’s “The Abyss.” (To say nothing of the same shtick in “Gravity.”) One character’s death seems inventive — until you realize nearly the same thing happened in Brian De Palma’s alternately masterful and dreadful “Mission to Mars.” Rehashing is not in itself a crime, and there’s a stretch, when the virus first breaks loose, that’s genuinely hairy and nail-biting. Perhaps it’s not ideal that one of the most likable characters eats it early, but that does raise the stakes. No one (or at least no good actor) is safe.
And there are some great actors. Tom Cullen — one half of the excellent gay romance “Weekend” — and Romola Garari bring unusual, maybe even undeserved, pathos to stock characters. Meanwhile Elias Koteas does his worldweary thing, and Olivia Williams further enforces the theory, as demonstrated in “The Ghost Writer” and “Hyde Park On Hudson,” that there’s no one right now more electric at playing royally pissed-off. Then again, there’s a foundational issue: this is a horror in which everyone gets picked off one by one. When your only real attribute is the terrific actors, that only means the quality shrinks with every kill, leaving nothing much at all.