By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The not-too-distant future is the time frame for The Last Days on Mars, a sci-fi horror thriller in which astronauts from Earth search for signs of life on the Red Planet.
Liev Schreiber plays an American chief engineer, one of eight astronauts on an international research station who have been here for six long months.
And it will take them that long again to get home.
They’re getting ready to start for Earth in less than a day, homesick and testy and sick of one another, discussing their disappointment that not much of anything happened in terms of eye-opening discoveries or signs of life on this unproductive scientific mission to Mars.
Then a crew member ventures out into the hostile Martian environment and discovers evidence of a form of life, a virulent bacterial strain.
And before you can say, “Where’d everybody go?,” characters are rushing off to investigate, then turning up slightly changed.
Let’s call them, for lack of a better word, zombies.
Yep, it’s World War Z for this very tiny population. And the survivors will not want to bring this contagion back to Earth.
First-time Irish director Ruairi Robinson, working from screenwriter Clive Dawson’s adaptation of a short story by Sydney J. Bounds called “The Animators,” sets things up with a magnificently atmospheric first half-hour of establishing scenes that pulsate with dread.
And he employs the necessary special effects without showing off the pyrotechnics or allowing them to overwhelm the story or characters.
The principal cast, including Romola Garis, Elias Koteas, and Olivia Williams, comprise a persuasive ensemble of frightened, trapped worker bees in space (shades of Alien) on the edge of panic as their training gets severely tested.
And while neither the narrative follow-through nor the ending quite lives up to what has preceded it, and the characters are not as well developed as we hoped they would be, the director keeps the suspense thick throughout, aided immeasurably by the tinkly score.
Images and notions from several other sci-fi or horror thrillers will come to mind, including Alien, The Thing, Mission to Mars, Red Planet, and Moon. But The Last Days on Mars manages to carve out its own niche and take its rightful place in the genre’s history.
So we’ll explore 3 stars out of 4. The Last Days on Mars is an engrossing, shivery blend of science fiction and horror in which the Red Planet turns into the Night of the Living Dead planet.