Cannes 2013: Sci-Fi 'Last Days on Mars' Retreads Familiar Territory
by Alex Billington
May 20, 2013
One of the very few full-on science fiction films premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this year is a thriller called The Last Days on Mars, directed by Irish filmmaker Ruairi Robinson making his feature debut after a number of shorts including Blinky™ and Fifty Percent Grey. Set on Mars at the end of a six month manned mission to the planet to search for signs of life, it starts out as an intriguing indie sci-fi with some promise. But alas devolves into something that I hate to say is derivative and brings absolutely nothing new to the sci-fi game, which is a bit unfortunate because it otherwise visually looks great—some concept work was done by Weta, but the rest of the visual effects were made entirely by Screen Scene based out of Ireland.
Note: some minor spoilers follow but I fully expect these story beats to be shown/hinted at in the trailer.
The film is part of the Cannes sidebar Directors' Fortnight, not the main festival selection, but this was still its world premiere. The Last Days on Mars stars an international cast including Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams, Johnny Harris, Goran Kostic and Tom Cullen as a group of astronauts on a lengthy mission to Mars, who find something in a rock sample right in the last hours before their journey home to Earth. From there it begins to devolve in the typical one-by-one they each die trope; then they come back to life, they go after the others, and it turns into The Thing meets Ghosts of Mars meets "Walking Dead" and it doesn't add much else to the mix besides borrowing from those and other sci-fi films.
That's the problem. It occasionally tries to be unique, at least visually, but always falls back to the same old sci-fi horror tropes. Didn't they see Mission to Mars and Red Planet and Apollo 18 already? Of course you can never kill the undead, of course we're not going to figure out what exactly caused this, of course they're going to keep dying off one-by-one, of course they're going to pop up when we least expect it. Of course it's not going to go anywhere or do anything different, because when do any of these ever do anything different? And that's the thing. This had the chance to be different and it wasn't, which is a bit frustrating because I really do believe that Robinson is a very talented sci-fi filmmaker, maybe he just needs a much better story.
At least with the visual effects, Robinson gives us something to appreciate. It does borrow from the likes of Alien and Prometheus, including the flashing-lights-alarms-in-enclosed-spaces style, but he uses the camera effectively in shots. It doesn't so much feel like an independent film, which is really the biggest achievement, but it doesn't help that there's a blaring Universal Pictures opening animation at the beginning to remind us this still had some money behind it. I can't even say much for the performances either, with Liev Schreiber being serviceable at most, and Olivia Williams taking cake as the nuttiest character, however Elias Koteas was highly underutilized and the rest of the cast didn't even have much of a chance to make an impression.
As a lover of the sci-fi genre, there's not much more frustrating than seeing a unique first-time feature debut with so much potential squandered for nothing but a repeat of everything we've seen before. But, I still have hope for Ruairi Robinson, hope that one day he'll get an incredible script and prove that he is capable of delivering feature sci-fi that does make an impression on the genre. Until then, this will be his calling card. While some many find a bit of entertainment in it (especially if you love space zombies or exploring Mars), I was too often let down whenever looking for fresh, unique twists rather than the same steps retraced again.
Alex's Cannes Rating: 6 out of 10