“Sci-Fi Night” at the After Dark Film Festival opened with the Canadian Premiere of a claustrophobic new horror-thriller by director Ruairi Robinson entitled The Last Days on Mars. The film feels like a mashup of key ingredients from classics like Alien or The Thing along with modern zombie-films such as the Dawn of the Dead remake or 28 Days Later. Despite following a very predictable structure and bringing nothing new to the sci-fi or horror genres, Mars makes the most of a modest budget (for a film of this scale) to offer genuine thrills and some truly wonderful visuals, aided by a strong cast that helps to carry it over its minor hurdles.
It’s the final day of a 6-month exploratory trip to the red planet, and one member of the scientific research team secretly stumbles upon evidence of possible bacterial life beneath the surface. Hiding his findings from the rest of the team in an attempt to retain all the credit, he sets out to investigate the area but quickly vanishes when the ground caves in beneath him. While attempting to rescue or (more likely) retrieve his body, the team proves unable to find him anywhere. Before long, another member vanishes without a trace, and things quickly turn from bad to worse as they come to learn the true nature of the life-form they have uncovered…
The Last Days on Mars starts out as a slow-burner, taking time to introduce its network of characters, who are all on edge for one reason or another after being holed up in a claustrophobic base together for half a year. The main cast contains a few familiar faces (Liev Schreiber, Olivia Williams, and the always-fantastic Elias Koteas) who help to maintain interest and credibility during the “paint-by-numbers” plotting. This slow lead-in eventually gives way to a deliciously bloody second-half, with a welcomed shift in tone that will satisfy some horror fans, despite refusing to really take any chances with the material. It all leads to a gripping climax sequence that is visually stunning and well-executed, followed by an ending that you probably saw coming 20 minutes before.
One of the things I admired about this film is that, unlike many zombie films from the modern era, it refuses to descend into a series of repetitive zombie-killing set-pieces, instead maintaining more of a focus on survival and escape. Some specifics about the “disease” and the way in which it spreads left me a bit frustrated, as did some of the excessively shaky camerawork in the film’s more intense sequences; however the overall journey and tense climax were effective enough on their own that I found myself more willing to overlook these faults. I suppose in the end, there is a part of me that just loves this specific breed of sci-fi / horror film enough to crave more simplistic genre efforts such as this, even if they are all destined to live in the shadow of the classics that inspired them.
R A T I N G : 3 . 5 / 5 S T A R S