Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

The Last Days on Mars is a mid-size action sci-fi film in the typical niche of such fare, a niche which this critic is no stranger to. We used to call them “summer movies”. Now they’re called historical artifacts.

Zombies are once again on Mars. Terraforming hasn’t happened yet, and the space suits actually look like they work. Space zombies presented as hard science may be a hard sell for some people, but if you want to see the details of the space zombie fungus, the Mars habitats, and all the other cool space visuals, this movie was made for you.

2013 was a strange year for film.


Liev Schreiber plays rocketman Vince Campbell, a guy who works at a Mars base. Don’t ask him anything too technical; he just works there. In the words of George Clooney, “I just drive the bus” (Gravity, 2013). There’s something about 2013 and outer space badasses. Even Europa Report (2013) had its share of schlock. And don’t forget Riddick (also 2013).

Last Days had a lot of competition. How does it measure up? Fairly well, actually. It’s no Riddick, but at a sub-$10m shooting budget, the Schreiber vehicle delivers harder science than even the likes of David Twohy have yet presented. A little softer than Europa Report, but still hard as an asteroid.

The focus on hard science must have undermined the film’s financial success. It lost basically all its money, but has a cult following among a few critics. Kenneth Turan gave it a forgiving review, stating that Mars has “rarely looked so convincing”. For me, that is a primary selling point.

Of course, you won’t have to wait long for the zombie schlock. A guy falls in a hole, zombie fungus gets through his space suit, and before you know it it’s a finely-crafted video game. The filmmakers clearly play video games, as the action is on point, unlike John Carpenter’s less adrenaline-packed vision. You’ve got zombies, you’ve got violence, you’ve got space. What more do you need?

The action feels authentic. Watching made me feel like I was cautiously waiting to get killed. The spaceships are somewhat less authentic (single stage to Martian orbit in a minivan with wings) but I nonetheless want one. In science, drawing a cool picture is how you get the real thing built. Maybe this flashy Star Wars nonsense will make it onto a launch pad one day.

As far as I can tell, all the characters die in the end. They either become zombies, get eaten or ripped apart by zombies, or some combination of those things. Some of it is off-screen, but it is strongly implied that implausibly targeted space pathogens can ruin everyone’s vacation.