Cannes Review: 'The Last Days on Mars'

My heart lives dead center of the Venn diagram for hard science-fiction author Ben Bova and low-rent schlockmeister Roger Corman. Yet "The Last Days on Mars" leaves me as cold as the inky void of space. This would-be smart horror pic with the elevator pitch you can't refuse - "The Thing" on Mars - should be kept on file for further study of just how to screw up what ought to be an awesome movie.

The first thirty-five minutes (I timed it) are rock solid. An international team of scientists are on a Mars mission and director Ruairi Robertson wisely decides to just throw us in and let us work out the characters, power dynamics and technical capabilities for ourselves. The team is led by Canadian Charles (Elias Koteas) and the top (competitive) scientists are Russian Marko (Goran Kostic) and Briton Kim (Olivia Williams.) Both are driven to a fault - their desire to find more than just dirt on the red planet may be making them a little nuts, so much so that they will lie cheat or steal to get a few more minutes at a dig site.

We're witness to all this through the eyes of the American Chief Engineer Vincent (Liev Schreiber,) a bit of a downer due to a panic attack he suffered on the six month "ride in a coffin" it took to get to Mars. They're all looking at another six months in just a few hours as their current tour of duty is about to end - but not before one last attempt to make a discovery.

When Marko gets a chance to go out in the rover one additional time, sending Kim (the film's only interesting character) into a rage, curious microbes appear to have reacted positively to a test he planted. Before he has a chance to dub himself the most important scientist in the history of mankind the ground swallows him up. The team reacts to his partner's mayday and that's when this well-observed look at working scientists down-shifts into disinteresting schlock.

I'll leave the specifics of "how" out of it and leave you with two words: Space Zombies. And, not even cool looking Space Zombies! At the aforementioned thirty-five minute mark we get our first kill, followed by the usual tropes of comrades getting infecting and rising from the dead. Glimpses of the baddies got a well-deserved chuckle from some folks in the audience. None of the action is shot in a particularly interesting manner, and the only differentiator is that there are some good "c'mon! c'mon! c'mon!" moments while waiting for decompression chambers and airlocks to reset.

The other thing that makes this film unique is very baritone Schreiber in an action picture's leading role. He plays his trauma flashback scenes in a rather sympathetic way; he and director Robertson decide to go the unlikely hero route to such an extent that he is something of a space wuss. This makes for a nice act three (and good last scene) but that doesn't do much to alter the great big dud that is act two.

Romola Garai plays "the girl" and she's absolutely gorgeous, but there's not much in this film to let you connect with their relationship. Schreiber saves it to an extent with some unusual performance choices, but when you compare this ending to the emotional supernova of Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" it comes way short.

The opening of the film and its wonderful not-that-different tech ought will delight fans of, say, Duncan Jones' "Moon" or, as I already name-checked, the "Grand Tour" novels by Ben Bova, but the remainder of the film does nothing more than remind us what a visionary a fella like Paul W.S. Anderson is. Not that his virus-zombie films aren't superlatively stupid, but at least they have some panache.

SCORE: 5.0 / 10