With each new discovery of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which recently found evidence that Mars once accommodated lakes with potentially drinkable water, it’s an exciting time to ponder what else might have been — or could still be — on the Red Planet. “The Last Days on Mars” seems like it could deliver such thought-provoking goods — at least until the plot devolves into Zombies in Outer Space.
The sci-fi thriller follows a small band of scientists and engineers preparing to leave Mars after a six-month stint trolling the desert for signs of life. It seems like their mission was for naught and that they’ll return to Earth empty-handed, except that one rogue scientist harbors a secret. He may have stumbled upon an ancient bacteria, but he needs to go back into the field to validate his findings.
To do this, he’ll have to break protocol, and the boilerplate setup tells us that because he is the least recognizable member of the movie’s cast, he may not be long for this world. But his fate isn’t as lamentable as the audience’s, which is about to get stuck with a particularly self-serious strain of zombie apocalypse.
There are moments at the start of Ruairi Robinson’s feature-length directorial debut that seem promising, if by the numbers. There is spectacular footage of dust storms and an eerie strings-heavy soundtrack that creates an effective atmosphere of doom. “The Last Days on Mars” was never going to be “Gravity,” but it looked like it could aspire to be something in the vein of this year’s similarly themed and highly enjoyable found footage flick “Europa Report.”
Yet the movie is plagued with flaws, not the least of which is that the main protagonists, chief systems engineer Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) and biologist Rebecca Lane (Romola Garai), are forgettable. While Campbell has a couple of quirks — who goes into outer space if he has issues with claustrophobia? — he offers little for the audience to latch onto. Schreiber, with his flat intonation and subtle expressions, has the staid thing down, and he can deliver an impressive dramatic performance. But he doesn’t transmit personality or charisma, which is exactly what “The Last Days on Mars” needs, especially when it turns into more of an action movie.
There is much to be said about the utter ridiculousness of the villains in the movie, but it doesn’t seem right to give too much away. So I’ll keep it simple: The zombies aren’t scary. After the early scenes, which feel serious, even understated, the walking dead theme seems strained and silly.
It’s ironic that while the plot unfolds in the most predictable fashion, it’s difficult to literally see what’s happening. Between the dark or dusty shots and the hyper-quick cutting, some of the action is nearly impossible to discern. But maybe that shouldn’t matter since all of “The Last Days on Mars” feels like it’s been done before.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains action, language and violence, including a couple of grisly images. 98 minutes.