THE LAST DAYS ON MARS. Does every film with “Mars” in a title have to be a financial flop?
This was the case with Invaders from Mars, Ghosts of Mars, Mission to Mars, or Mars Needs Moms. Moreover, sometimes the name of the planet doesn’t even have to appear in the title; it’s enough for the action to take place on Mars, and the audience will sense the trick and not bother going to the cinema (Red Planet, Doom). Given this fact, the producers of John Carter wisely avoided using the title of its literary source, A Princess of Mars. However, these careful efforts did not help the film achieve the expected success. There are only two explanations for this phenomenon: either there is an irrational curse, or the creators of Mars-themed movies lack interesting ideas. After watching The Last Days on Mars, I am inclined to lean towards the latter explanation.
I don’t even feel like describing the plot of The Last Days on Mars because I simply don’t like repeating myself. I have already described this plot several times with significant details. And I will do so again many times. For many science fiction creators, this plot still seems to hold some value.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about the classic research expedition taking place on an alien planet, where the course of events goes out of control due to some vaguely defined form of life. That’s it. You know this story well; you’ve seen it hundreds of times, and you certainly have no doubts about how it will end. My commitment to provide you with a comprehensive review, where I would describe what happens on the screen, ends at this point.
Those who expected The Last Days on Mars to break the unfortunate series of Mars-themed movie failures were mistaken. In terms of the plot, this film does not have an ounce of potential; it lacks a valuable differentiator that could set it apart from other SF productions on a similar theme. On the other hand, what is excessive in the script are simplifications that show ignorance for the viewer’s intelligence. The course of events is so predictably linear that there is no chance of feeling any tension, let alone concern for the fate of the characters. And without that, it is impossible to get through the screening other than with a piercing feeling of boredom.
But the film had one important advantage that, even before the screening, inclined me towards moderate optimism. The young Irish filmmaker Ruairi Robinson sat in the director’s chair, who had previously boasted a few SF short films that were both original in content and form. One of them – Fifty Percent Gray – was even nominated for an Oscar in 2002. Unfortunately, it is often the case that those who specialize in short films struggle with full-length ones. It is much more difficult for them to distribute accents, to handle tension. Ruairi Robinson is a good example to confirm this dependency. I wish him the best, though, because he evidently hides some unpredictable potential. Hopefully, with the next full-length movie – if it ever comes – he will get a better script to work with, or he will be allowed to write his own.
I don’t like to mention acting when it plays a marginal role in the reception of a given film, but in this case, I will make an exception. It is worth noting that the cast includes three important names that will surely have their followers. Liev Schreiber, Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas may have a moderately attractive force, but their acting skills are on a very solid level. And they prove this in The Last Days on Mars. Williams leads the way with her version of a “bitter crewwoman” – one can only regret that she had to give screen time to a much less convincing younger colleague.
Other aspects that are at a decent level but cannot in any way affect the final reception of the film include audiovisual effects. A reliable camera, a few atmospheric shots, a good choice of color palette. Set design and costumes are made not to shock with sensationalism but to build credibility. And the music, which contains several really good fragments with the potential to complement the unique atmosphere that the film unfortunately lacks.
Everything boils down to a painfully derivative script that does not allow me to look at The Last Days on Mars with a favorable eye. It just can’t be done. It is impossible to interest the viewer in a science fiction film whose literary basis is almost identical to what we already know and have grown tired of. This genre, like no other, due to its unique nature, gives creators a much broader field of possibilities. Therefore, it is incomprehensible to me to blindly and thoughtlessly base a narrative on a ready-made, narrative-less script.
On the other hand, Mars – our eternal neighbor – deserves a more serious treatment, if only because of the gradual overcoming of the cognitive barrier separating us from it. It remains to be hoped that the results of the Curiosity rover’s exploration, sent to the red planet last year, will provide filmmakers with solid material for inspiration.