Judge Gordon Sullivan prays the Mars bar will exist forever.
The search for life is about to end.
The gaffe has already entered legend: at a press conference for 3D space drama/thriller Gravity, a hapless journalist asked director Alfonso Cuaron what it was like to film in space. The joke, of course, is that there was no filming in space; the entire interstellar environment was created with clever rigs and careful CGI. That's the state of the art, literally, in 2013. What that means for filmmakers (and film viewers) is that imagination is increasingly going to become the limiting factor in the creation of on-screen worlds. The Last Days on Mars benefits from this transformation, giving us a film that couldn't have been made even five years ago (at least not for its budget). More importantly, though undoubtedly a sci-fi visual feast, the film puts its CGI environments to a use other than spectacle. It may sell itself as a visionary sci-fi flick, but The Last Days on Mars sneaks a decent little drama past viewers instead.
Facts of the Case
It's the end of a six-month deployment on Mars, and the team of scientists and engineers are weary from their long time spent away from home. Not much has happened, and engineer Vincent (Liev Schreiber, Salt) isn't looking forward to the trip home. Tensions are high among the crew, and when it seems that someone has secretly discovered an alien life form, everyone is threatened.
I hate to bring up Gravity again, but it's opening scene drove home something that other sci-fi films have been trying to nail for decades: the perfect mix of banality and terror. On the one hand, changing out a circuit board shouldn't be a huge deal, but when you're tethered to a hunk of metal the ordinary suddenly becomes filled with terror. Since these are opposing forces, it's hard to capture what it's like when terror becomes banal. Alien went for it in 1978 by making the Nostromo look like an "interstellar semi," and The Last Days on Mars goes for a similar vibe. We're looking at a crew that's at the end of their rope—exhausted, disappointed, and ready to get back to Earth.
Though the characters are drawn in pretty broad strokes, much of the movie (especially the first act) is concerned with giving us the dramatic moments in the final hours of an exploratory mission. Like all the best sci-fi, The Last Days of Mars grounds its more speculative elements in character. A feeling of reality makes the more out-there elements of the film easier to take.
Then, of course, the film transforms into a terror-fueled ride (not, in many ways, that different from Alien). The new life form not only threatens the team, but their ability to get home. Who wants to be the one who brought a new, infectious life-form to Earth? Not me. At this point. the movie ramps up, and the pressure is on as the scientists and engineers have to figure out way to not only survive, but ensure they can get home.
Attentive readers will have no doubt figured out that The Last Days on Mars isn't afraid of borrowing from other films. Moon shares a similar "tedium of space" theme, while Alien obviously provides a template for working out interpersonal issues in space. In The Thing (whether John Carpenter's remake or the original), paranoia and claustrophobia are also important. In this august company, The Last Days on Mars can look a bit like a piker, riding the coattails of better, more perfectly executed movies. What saves it from that fate is a certain modesty—though there are references to great films throughout The Last Days on Mars, the film doesn't try to be something it isn't (like a classic sci-fi film).
The film also benefits from a solid cast: Liev Schreiber is probably the biggest name, but the film benefits from a grizzled Elias Koteas as well. Romola Garai and Olivia Williams help keep the gender balance, and everyone is convincing as people stuck on a very remote outpost for months of danger and tedium.
The DVD is pretty solid as well. The film gets a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that's crisp and detailed. The effects work blends pretty seamlessly with the practical shots, and the color saturation is spot-on for a film that's been as manipulated in post as this one. Black levels are pretty good, staying deep and consistent for the most part. The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track is similarly excellent, with clear dialogue and good directionality. It does an effective job of setting up the sonic environment on the Mars station.
Extras start with a vanilla making-of featurette that runs for 15 minutes featuring input from the cast and crew. Another featurette gives us a look at how the digital effects were created, while a third offers a few comparison shots between what was in front of the camera and what the finished film looks like. Finally, a short promo featurette is included as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course we've seen it all before. Though the effects are better than even what Moon could offer a few years ago, The Last Days on Mars doesn't give us much else in terms of story or character that's novel. That's not a huge problem, but what keeps it from getting to that next level is an inability to mix its two halve. A purely dramatic telling of the last couple of days on a Martian mission, especially with the excellent effects in the film, would have made the film stand out from other sci-fi influenced films. On the other side, the film doesn't quite commit to its more sensational aspects. There some tense moments, and some gore, but The Thing set a pretty high bar for gore and special effects. There are enough opportunities for it in Mars, but the film refuses to really sink its teeth into the options available for mayhem.
The Last Days on Mars has loads of potential—a solid cast, good effects, and an interesting premise—but the total is never more than the sum of its parts. Fans of the actors or those looking for a competent take on the difficulties of interplanetary exploration should probably give this one a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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