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The Last Days on Mars

Year: 2013
Production Co: British Film Institute
Director: Ruairi Robinson
Writer: Clive Dawson
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams

Partway through watching this audacious little sci-fi horror you realise you're watching nothing new in the premise, but the visuals and a couple of unexpected narrative tics have the power to win you over.

The premise of being stranded with monsters on another planet has just about been done to death, in everything from 1989's Moontrap to 2000's Red Planet (also on Mars, with a man-made monster), and The Last Days on Mars doesn't have a lot to add – in fact, short of giving a very large nod to the most popular monster in pop culture of the last decade, it doesn't really do much to explain exactly what's going on either.

It also follows one sci-fi horror trope after another – of one character after another being picked off, the disparate personalities chafing against each other in the worst way and the struggles of grappling with a foreign world (finite power sources, the lack of air, etc) while the menacing antagonist stalks the survivors from outside.

But the visuals – shot on location in the UK and the deserts of Jordan in the Middle East – are reminiscent of Duncan Jones' Moon, looking futuristic enough to be cool but practical enough to seem contemporary.

It telegraphs Liev Schreiber (as mission tech Campbell) as the hero from way too early, but he and his crewmates (including Romola Garai, Elias Koteas and a delightfully prickly and obnoxious Olivia Williams) are on the last day of their months-long Mars mission when they find a site that seems to contain biological samples, indicating possible life.

But when the ground opens up and one of their number is lost down the pit in a fall, it's the start of a nightmare. Something nasty is at the bottom which is barely seen and never explained, except that it turns the rapidly dying crew members into the crazed undead, complete with decomposed faces and murderous intent directed at those left.

Aside from the very well designed vehicles and base buildings, the character of Campbell is given an interesting dimension where he seems to be suffering from PTSD thanks to the months-long voyage to Mars – one that attacks him with vertigo and hallucinations at inopportune moments. For awhile it looks like his condition is going to be more integral to the plot, but it all ends up a little too much like its by-numbers predecessors.

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